HealthONE - November 07, 2019

What You Need to Know About Lung Cancer

Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast and prostate cancers combined. The American Cancer Society estimated there would more than 228,000 new cases of lung cancer diagnosed in 2019. It’s the leading cause of death due to cancer in America. While this all sounds pretty dour, there is some good news as well. If you find lung cancer early, the odds of survival increase exponentially. More on that below, but first, let’s talk about the types of lung cancer, risk factors and common symptoms.

Types of Lung Cancer

There are two main types of lung cancer:

  • Non-small cell lung cancer, which is often treated with surgery alone if caught early — in Stage I or II. In patients with Stage III, doctors may advise a combination of therapies like surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation. Stage IV non-small cell lung cancer is treated with chemotherapy alone, and sometimes radiation as well.
  • Small cell lung cancer is usually treated with chemotherapy and radiation instead of surgery.

Lung Cancer Risk Factors

As you likely already know, smoking causes a large majority of lung cancers in adults, but non-smokers are also diagnosed with lung cancer. Here are some common risk factors you might not be as familiar with:

  • Breathing second-hand smoke from cigarettes, pipes, or cigars.
  • Exposure to high levels of radon, a gas from rocks and dirt that occurs naturally and can get trapped in houses and buildings.
  • Exposure to workplace substances like asbestos, arsenic, diesel exhaust and some forms of silica and chromium.
  • Having immediate family members like parents, siblings or children who were diagnosed with lung cancer.
  • Being a cancer survivor who received radiation therapy to the chest as part of treatment.

Lung Cancer Symptoms

Unfortunately, people with early-stage lung cancer don’t experience any symptoms. As cancer grows, common symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • A cough that won’t go away
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest pain
  • Trouble swallowing or breathing
  • Feeling tired and rundown
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pneumonia
  • Wheezing
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss/not feeling hungry

Remember, these symptoms could also be due to another medical issue, so its important to talk to your doctor about any symptoms you might be having.

Lung Cancer Screening

People considered high risk — those who are between 55 and 77 years old and who have smoked at least 30 pack years — are eligible for a lung cancer screening. You can calculate pack years by multiplying the number of packs smoked per day by the number of years smoked (if you have current lung cancer symptoms, you’re not eligible for the screening).

Lung cancer screening is fast, painless and noninvasive; screenings are performed using a low-dose CT scan that takes pictures of your lungs.

“It’s been shown that lung cancer screenings can reduce the mortality of lung cancer by 20 percent,” said Jenifer Marks, a general thoracic surgeon at Cardiothoracic & Vascular Surgery Associates who sees patients at The Medical Center of Aurora, Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center and Rose Medical Center. “Early detection is of paramount importance.”

Screenings are recommended annually for those who meet the screening and risk factor criteria.

For more information visit our lung cancer page.

How Artificial Intelligence is Saving Lives

The Sarah Cannon Cancer Network at HealthONE is using advanced artificial intelligence (AI) technology to help detect lung cancer early. AI technology scans radiology reports for all chest CTs performed in the various hospitals and facilities for the word “nodule” related to lung and a few other keywords to help identify lung nodules, which is an abnormal spot seen on an imaging exam. The nodules may be of early or varying degrees of concern, Dr. Marks said.

“Our software pulls out reports that are fed to our lung nodule coordinator at each facility who then goes in and reviews the chart and verifies the info that the technology picked up,” she said.

Any concerning lung nodule is brought to a multidisciplinary tumor conference at each hospital. There a team of invested physicians who treat those nodules —a thoracic surgeon, a pulmonologist, a radiologist, a medical oncologist and a radiation oncologist — then determine the appropriate follow up.

“We have the expert eyes; this is what we look at and deal with every single day and we can pick out the nodules that are concerning and help facilitate a much more rapid follow-up or workup for that nodule so we’re not losing time for a potential malignancy,” Dr. Marks said.

Learn more in this video.