Lung Cancer FAQs
It’s natural to have questions if you’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer. Our team is here to make sure you have the information you need. We’ve compiled a list of the questions we hear most often from patients, as well as the answers to get you started on your journey of care with us.
Lung cancer basicsThe following questions cover basic information about lung cancer:
- What are the different types of lung cancer?
- Is lung cancer aggressive?
- Does smoking cause lung cancer?
- Can nonsmokers develop lung cancer?
- What are the risk factors for lung cancer?
Lung cancer symptoms and diagnosisThe following questions involve the diagnostic process for lung cancer, as well as warning signs for the disease:
- How is lung cancer diagnosed?
- What are the symptoms of lung cancer?
- Can lung cancer be detected early?
- What tests are needed to stage lung cancer?
- Can lung cancer show up as pneumonia?
- Can lung cancer be detected in blood tests?
Lung cancer treatmentThe following questions focus on the treatment process for lung cancer:
- Can lung cancer be cured?
- How do you treat lung cancer?
- What are the side effects of treatment (medical, surgical and radiation)?
- How will lung cancer surgery affect my ability to breathe and daily life?
- When is lung cancer inoperable?
- Will my lung cancer come back?
What are the different types of lung cancer?
There are two major types of lung cancer: non-small-cell lung cancer and small-cell lung cancer.
About 85 percent of all lung cancers are non-small-cell. This group includes squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma and neuroendocrine tumors.
About 15 percent of all lung cancers are small-cell. This type of cancer tends to grow quicker than non-small-cell lung cancer.
Is lung cancer aggressive?
Small-cell lung cancer tends to grow quicker than non-small-cell lung cancer and, as such, is often far more aggressive. Because of the rate at which small-cell lung cancer spreads (metastasizes), we usually diagnose it after it has spread outside of the lungs.
Does smoking cause lung cancer?
Smoking causes the majority of lung cancers in both smokers and those exposed to secondhand smoke, but it does not cause all cases of lung cancer. People who do not smoke or have never been exposed to secondhand smoke can be diagnosed with lung cancer — although, in these cases, the exact cause is not always clear.
Can nonsmokers develop lung cancer?
Although smoking causes the majority of lung cancers, nearly 20 percent of people who die from lung cancer in the United States have never smoked or used tobacco products. Sadly, this is enough to rank this population in the top 10 most fatal cancers in the U.S., if nonsmokers who developed lung cancer had their own category.
Aside from tobacco use or exposure to secondhand smoke, other causes of lung cancer include:
- Radon gas: The leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers
- Cancer-causing agents: This includes carcinogens like asbestos and diesel exhaust
- Air pollution: The risk of air pollution causing cancer has decreased due to environmental protection policies
- Gene mutations: Research to determine what causes cells to become cancerous is ongoing
Be sure to limit your exposure to any of these causes of lung cancer, such as testing your home for radon and eliminating any possible hazards in your workplace.
What are the risk factors for lung cancer?
Aside from smoking, tobacco use or secondhand smoke, other risk factors for lung cancer include:
- Personal or family history of lung cancer
- Exposure to other cancer-causing agents such as radon, arsenic, air pollution or asbestos
- Certain dietary supplements such as beta carotene
How is lung cancer diagnosed?
If your doctor suspects lung cancer, they may order an imaging test and/or a biopsy. Imaging tests take pictures of the inside of the body. Doctors may use chest X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, positron emission tomography (PET) scans or bone scans to help find cancer. Imaging test results also guide your doctors’ treatment decisions, based on how the cancer is changing.
To diagnose cancer, we must perform a biopsy — sending a tissue sample from your lung for further testing. If something in the lung looks suspicious, the doctor may recommend this test. Many minimally invasive methods for sampling tissue are quick and painless, including bronchoscopy and interventional pulmonology.
What are the symptoms of lung cancer?
Unfortunately, you may not notice any signs of lung cancer until the disease is advanced. However, some people with early lung cancer do have symptoms, which may include:
- Coughing up blood
- Persistent cough that won’t go away
- Shortness of breath
- Unexplained weight loss
- Feeling tired or weak
- Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that don’t go away or keep coming back
- New onset of wheezing
Can lung cancer be detected early?
Symptoms of lung cancer usually don’t appear until the disease is already at an advanced, noncurable stage, which makes early detection difficult. However, our Lung Cancer Screening Clinic uses computed tomography (CT) scans to identify potential lung cancer as early as possible in current or former smokers.
What tests are needed to stage lung cancer?
In order to determine the best and most effective treatment options, your doctor must first determine which stage your lung cancer is in. To do so, your doctor may administer staging tests, such as computerized tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) and bone scans, each of which allows your doctor to determine the location and extent to which your lung cancer may have spread.
Can lung cancer show up as pneumonia?
Although they are two separate conditions, lung cancer and pneumonia can often present with similar symptoms, causing some patients to first be treated for pneumonia before further imaging tests reveal an underlying cancer.
Some of the shared symptoms between lung cancer and pneumonia include:
- Darker mucus
- Loss of appetite
- Low energy or fatigue
- Pains in your chest that are worse when you breathe
- Shortness of breath
Pneumonia will also present with more coldlike symptoms, such as fever, chills and headaches.
If your primary doctor has diagnosed you with pneumonia, it is important to complete all medication as prescribed. If your symptoms continue, follow up with your primary care provider to re-evaluate your treatment. At this time, your doctor may recommend more advanced imaging to rule out any other underlying conditions, including cancer.
Can lung cancer be detected in blood tests?
Although there currently are not any blood tests available that can detect lung cancer with certainty, we have participated in tumor sampling research to assist in the development of future lab tests and better understand how to distinguish between malignant and benign tumors to determine overall risk factors.
Can lung cancer be cured?
Although lung cancer can technically be cured, it is very rare and can only occur in very specific circumstances, such as individuals who have stage 1A lung cancer with no vascular invasion.
However, lung cancer can be treated and managed in a variety of ways, especially given recent advancements in modern medicine and oncology. Although there is always a chance that lung cancer can recur, the longer someone lives without evidence of cancer the lower the likelihood that it will come back.
How do you treat lung cancer?
Our lung cancer team, along with specialists from the Henry Ford Center for Lung Health, cares for more than 500 lung cancer patients every year. A team of specialists will discuss your particular case and develop a treatment plan specific to your health and your unique needs. Depending on which stage your lung cancer is in at diagnosis, your treatment may include:
- Ablation techniques (minimally invasive procedures to destroy tumors)
- Clinical trials
- Interventional pulmonology
- Lung cancer surgery
- Targeted therapy through our Precision Medicine program
- Radiation therapy
What are the side effects of lung cancer treatment?
The side effects of lung cancer treatment vary according to the type of treatment involved:
- Chemotherapy: Hair loss, increased risk of infection, difficulty eating, constipation, diarrhea, extreme fatigue, bleeding and bruising, low red blood cell count
- Radiation: Inflammation, tenderness and sensitive skin near site of radiation treatment
- Surgery: Reactions to anesthesia, pain, excess bleeding, blood clots in the legs or lungs, wound infections, pneumonia, shortness of breath
How will lung cancer surgery affect my ability to breathe and daily life?
A common side effect of lung cancer surgery is shortness of breath and, depending on the extent of your surgery, your lung health prior to surgery and the time you need for your chest wall to heal, it may linger. However, you can take certain steps to minimize any shortness of breath that follows lung cancer surgery, including quitting smoking and gradually increasing your exercise program, including pool or walking exercises.
An important factor when considering lung cancer surgery is your quality of life, both before and after the procedure. Although a successful surgery can be one of the most effective treatments for lung cancer, it is important to be aware of what may lie ahead. Outside of the physical side effects of lung cancer surgery, such as shortness of breath, pain or pneumonia, patients have reported emotional side effects such as stress, fear, worry or anger, all of which are normal responses to a life-altering event.
If you need help or guidance following lung cancer surgery, we offer support services to help cope with any issues or concerns you may have.
When is lung cancer inoperable?
While many cases of lung cancer are considered “inoperable,” that does not mean that treatment or long-term survival is no longer an option. It is important to remember that inoperable simply means that lung cancer surgery is not currently the best treatment option. However, chemotherapy and radiation therapy could reduce the size or location of the tumor, which could allow lung cancer surgery to become an option.
Factors that would qualify lung cancer as inoperable include:
- General health: Overall health and prior medical conditions may present too much of a risk for lung cancer surgery to be an option.
- Location of tumor: Lung cancer surgery may not be an option if the tumor is located near vital structures, such as the heart.
- Stage of lung cancer: Lung cancer surgery is usually only an option for non-small-cell lung cancer in stage 1, stage 2 and stage 3a, while nonsurgical methods, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, are usually reserved for stage 3b and stage 4 lung cancer.
- Lung function: If it poses a risk to reduce lung function, especially if conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have already compromised breathing, then surgery is usually not a feasible option.
- Type of lung cancer: While we typically perform surgery for non-small-cell lung cancer, small-cell lung cancer tends to spread earlier, and surgery is usually only an option for small tumors.
Will my lung cancer come back?
The chances of lung cancer recurring is dependent upon several factors, including the original treatment strategy, the type of lung cancer and the stage at which it was diagnosed. While most instances of lung cancer recurrence are in the first five years post-diagnosis, there is, unfortunately, always a risk of recurrence. Dependent upon where the recurrence occurs, there are several ways to define it:
- Local: When the cancer comes back in the lungs and near the original tumor
- Regional: When the cancer recurs in the lymph nodes near the original tumor
- Distant: When the lung cancer recurs away from the original tumor, in sites such as the adrenal gland, liver, bones or brain