Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the UK. About 41,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer each year.
You have two lungs in your chest, inside your ribcage. Your lungs bring oxygen into your body, pass it into your blood and remove carbon dioxide. Air passes from your nose and mouth into your windpipe (trachea). Your windpipe divides into two airways called the right and left bronchus, and one goes into each lung. Each bronchus divides into smaller tubes called bronchioles. These lead to air sacs called alveoli. This is where oxygen filters into and carbon dioxide filters out of your blood.
Lung cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells in the lungs. This creates a lump (tumour) that can be either malignant (cancerous) or benign (not cancerous).
Lung cancer can start in the lining of your bronchi or your lung tissue – this is known as primary lung cancer. Cancer that has spread to the lungs through your bloodstream or your immune system from another part of your body is known as secondary lung cancer. Cancer is named depending on where it originally comes from. For example if someone has breast cancer that spreads to the lungs it is still called breast cancer.
There are two main types of lung cancer: non-small-cell (NSCLC) and small-cell (SCLC).
About eight in 10 primary lung cancers are diagnosed as NSCLC. There are three types of NSCLC.
It’s not always possible to identify the exact type of NSCLC you have and your doctor may diagnose you with ‘undifferentiated’ NSCLC.
This type of lung cancer is made up of small cells when examined under the microscope. It can develop quickly and spread to other parts of the body early on, often before it’s been diagnosed. For this reason, SCLC can be particularly difficult to cure. It’s almost always due to smoking.
Many people with lung cancer have no early symptoms at all. However, you may have:
Less common symptoms include:
These symptoms aren’t always caused by lung cancer but if you have had them for longer than three weeks, see your GP. The chance of curing lung cancer is higher if it is diagnosed early.
Smoking is the major cause of lung cancer, causing around eight in 10 lung cancers. Passive or second-hand smoking (breathing in other people’s smoke) is also linked to lung cancer.
Other factors that make lung cancer more likely include:
Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history. Your GP will usually refer you to a hospital for a chest X-ray.
If your chest X-ray shows signs of lung cancer, or your GP is particularly concerned about your symptoms, he or she will usually refer you to a doctor who specialises in chest disease.
You may have the following tests to confirm the diagnosis and find out the type of cancer you have and whether it has spread (this is called cancer staging).
Treatment of lung cancer depends on the type of cancer, how far it has spread and your general health.
SCLC is usually treated with chemotherapy because it has often spread by the time it’s diagnosed; this is sometimes combined with radiotherapy. NSCLC may be treated with surgery, chemotherapy or other medications, radiotherapy, or a combination of these methods.
Your doctor will discuss your treatment options with you.
Surgery may be an option to treat NSCLC if it hasn’t spread. Your surgeon may remove a small section, a lobe or a whole lung, depending on the size, type and position of the cancer. The use of surgery also depends on how healthy your lungs are to start with. Some patients can be cured by surgery.
Lung cancer can be difficult to cure because often it doesn’t cause symptoms until it has already spread. Where a cure isn’t possible, your treatment will aim to give you as good a quality of life as possible. This is known as palliative care.
Your doctor may offer you a combination of the treatments described here to help shrink the tumour and control your symptoms. Medicines are also available to help relieve other symptoms such as pain, coughing, feeling sick and vomiting and poor appetite.
You can reduce your risk of developing lung cancer by making certain lifestyle changes such as:
Being diagnosed with cancer can be distressing for you and your family. An important part of cancer treatment is having support to deal with the emotional aspects as well as the physical symptoms. Specialist cancer doctors and nurses are experts in providing the support you need, and may also visit you at home. If you have more advanced cancer, further support is available to you in hospices or at home.
Produced by Dylan Merkett, Bupa Health Information Team, March 2013
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
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