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The Facts on Lung Cancer & Who’s at Risk

November 18, 2020

What’s the second most common type of cancer among both men and women, if skin cancer is excluded? You might be surprised to learn that it’s lung cancer.

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 228,820 new cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year. That makes it second only to prostate cancer in men and breast cancer in women.

W. Neil McKee, MD

But while it’s fairly common, it’s also a type of cancer we don’t hear as much about. That’s why  W. Neil McKee, MD, pulmonologist with West Tennessee Medical Group, wants to shed some light on the topic during Lung Cancer Awareness Month this November.


Defining Lung Cancer

Cancer is a disease that occurs when cells in any location in the body grow out of control. When that occurs in the lungs, it’s lung cancer.

There are two main types of lung cancer—small cell and non-small cell. Around 80 to 85 percent of lung cancers are non-small cell lung cancer, which includes adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and large cell carcinoma.

Adenocarcinoma begins in the cells that typically secrete mucus and other substances. This form of lung cancer occurs most often in current or former smokers, but it’s also the most common type of lung cancer in those who do not smoke. 

Squamous cell carcinoma begins in the squamous cells, flat cells that line the inside of the lung’s airways.

Large cell carcinoma can appear in any part of the lung and tends to grow and spread quickly.

Small cell lung cancers represent up to 15 percent of all cases of lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer typically grows and spreads much faster than the non-small cell variety.


Lung Cancer Risk Factors
This is a tricky subject, because ultimately any person can develop lung cancer. In fact, around 20 percent of people who die from lung cancer in a given year have never smoked

But with that said, it is much more common among those who smoke or who have smoked previously.

Smoking is by far the most significant risk factor for developing lung cancer. Cigarette smoking is linked with the vast majority of all lung cancer deaths, and smokers are up to 30 times more likely to develop lung cancer.

Even simply smoking a few cigarettes on occasion makes you more likely to develop lung cancer, but the more you smoke and the longer you smoke, the more risk you have.

Other risk factors for lung cancer include:

  • Air pollution
  • Exposure to asbestos, arsenic, chromium, beryllium, nickel, soot or tar at work
  • Exposure to radiation, such as through radiation therapy for cancer or some imaging tests
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Family medical history of lung cancer
  • HIV infection


Lung Cancer Symptoms
Every person who has lung cancer experiences a slightly different combination of symptoms. If you have lung cancer, you may experience:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Coughing that worsens or is persistent
  • Coughing up of blood
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Hoarseness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Wheezing

In some cases, people who have lung cancer may also develop recurrent pneumonia or have swollen lymph nodes in the chest. If you experience any of these symptoms, particularly over a period of time, talk with your medical provider.


Do I Need Lung Cancer Screening?
You may wonder whether you can be screened for lung cancer. It seems logical, since there are screening tests for many forms of cancer and other medical conditions.

But while there are general guidelines related to regular screenings for breast cancer and colorectal cancer, lung cancer screening isn’t recommended as a basic test for most people.

However, yearly lung cancer screenings are recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force for those who have a history of heavy smoking, who smoke now or have quit within the last 15 years, and who are between 55 and 80 years old.

What exactly qualifies as “heavy” smoking? It’s a smoking history of 30 pack years or more. A “pack year” means smoking an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for one year. So a history of 30 pack years can mean different things for different people—one person may have smoked one pack a day for 30 years, while someone else may have smoked two packs per day for 15 years.

For those who qualify, screening for lung cancer is done through low-dose computed tomography, also known as a CT scan. This scan is not painful and takes only a few minutes of your time.

It’s important to note that while lung cancer screenings can detect lung cancer, there is also a risk of false positives or overdiagnosis. Talk with your medical provider about what’s right for you.

West Tennessee Healthcare offers comprehensive pulmonology services including diagnosis and care for lung cancer. Call (731) 541-5000 to learn more.