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Lung cancer is the most common cancer in the world. In the United Kingdom, over 40,000 new cases are diagnosed each year and it is estimated that, at any one time, there are half a million people in the UK either developing or suffering from lung cancer.

Lung cancer is a term used to describe a growth of abnormal cells inside the lung - these cells reproduce at a much quicker rate than normal cells. The abnormal cells grow to form a growth, a lump that is described by doctors as a tumour. If the abnormal cells first started growing in the lung, it is called a primary lung tumour. If the abnormal lung cells break off and travel in the blood or lymphatic circulation, they may start to grow in other areas of the body, for example bones. This new growth is called a secondary tumour or metastasis.
In general the disease is split into two main categories - small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).
Approximately 80% of people with lung cancer have non-small cell making it the most common group, whilst the remaining 20% have small cell. Non-small cell lung cancer can be further sub-divided, as there are also different types ('histologies') of non-small lung cancer. Each one is made up of a different type of abnormal cell. The most common histologies of non-small cell are adenocarcinoma, squamous carcinoma and large cell carcinoma.
There has been great debate as to the most effective treatments for this type of lung cancer; therefore it is worth discussing your options with your cancer doctor.
It is known that smokers and ex-smokers have a particularly high risk of developing the disease: although most lung cancers are related to smoking, 10% of people with lung cancer have never smoked. However, there are other factors that increase the risk of developing lung cancer disease, for example, exposure to chemicals found in the workplace or environment, such as: asbestos, radon, diesel exhaust fumes, synthetic fibres and many others. Current research suggests that lung cancer is not hereditary. However, this is still being researched.

If you were/are a smoker it is important to recognise that, although your smoking habit may have contributed, it may not be the only cause of the cancer. There are almost certainly other factors involved but perhaps not yet understood. Therefore, you should never feel stigmatised or guilty (15-20% of smokers develop lung cancer).

There are a variety of ways in which lung cancer may make itself known. Some people only discover it during a routine medical check-up, whilst others may have had signs and symptoms for many months. It is worth asking your doctor for an x-ray or second opinion if you have any of the following unexplained symptoms for more than three weeks:
  • Repeated chest infections that do not respond to antibiotics within three weeks.
  • An increase in the amount you cough.
  • Sputum (spit) that is bloody in colour.
  • Lost your voice but your throat feels fine.
  • Breathlessness.
  • Chest/shoulder pains.
  • Facial and/or neck swelling.
  • Unexplained weight loss/tiredness.
  • A change of shape at the ends of your fingers, known as clubbing.
  • Hoarseness.

It may be that the actual lung tumour does not cause problems to the chest, but that the spread to other areas of the body is what actually alerts you or your doctor to there being a problem.
There are a variety of treatments used in the management of lung cancer. The main ones are: surgery, radiotherapy (x-ray treatment) and chemotherapy. Other therapies can also be used to help control symptoms.
Before doctors can decide what type of treatment will work best for you, they must find out what stage your lung cancer is at. Staging is the process of finding out how large the lung cancer is, and how far it has spread. The results of various lung cancer tests are used to find out what stage your lung cancer is at. This helps doctors to decide what type of treatment will work best and whether there is a chance that your lung cancer can be cured. Successful surgery for lung cancer, with the chance of cure, may only be possible after the surgeon has considered the following points:
  • You and your lungs must be fit enough generally to cope with surgery.
  • Your tumour must not have spread to other parts of your body.
  • It must be technically possible to remove the tumour without damaging crucial structures in your chest.

It is more common for non-small cell lung cancers to be surgically removed as they are generally slower growing. However, small cell lung cancer can occasionally be removed if the disease is at a very early stage of development.
Radiotherapy is a general term for the treatment of cancer with x-rays. It works by killing cancer cells and is often used on its own to treat lung cancer. It may also be given as part of a combined treatment with surgery and/or chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is a general term for the treatment of cancer using drugs. Patients with different types of lung cancer are likely to receive different combinations of chemotherapy drugs. Chemotherapy is different to other treatments in that the cancer-fighting drugs circulate in the blood to parts of the body where the cancer may have spread. After discussing your treatment options with you, your doctor will decide which chemotherapy drugs are most suitable.
When to consult your doctor
If you have any of the previously mentioned symptoms then you should not hesitate to see your doctor. The doctor will examine you and listen to your chest and if lung cancer is suspected, further tests such as a chest X-ray, CT scan or lung biopsy (taking a sample of tissue from your lung) will be arranged to confirm the diagnosis.
If you smoke and would like to give up, also see your doctor. All of the nicotine replacement therapies can be obtained on a prescription. Alternatively, drug treatments available in tablet form may be prescribed.

This page is supplied by: The Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, the only UK charity wholly dedicated to defeating lung cancer. The Foundation funds lung cancer research, health promotion work and a comprehensive support, information and advocacy service for people affected by lung cancer.
Useful Tips
If you are seeing a specialist about lung cancer, understanding your disease and the treatment tools available can help you feel in control. You may want to use these questions as a guide:
  • What kind of lung cancer do I have?
  • Which histology is my lung cancer?
  • What are the different treatment goals I can aim for?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • What are the potential benefits and side effects of treatment?
  • Are there any clinical trials available that I might qualify for?
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