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Each lung is a spongy organ that consists of several sections or lobes. While the left lung is smaller, consisting of just two lobes, the larger right lung has three lobes. You deliver air to your lungs via the windpipe or trachea, which carries the air to smaller tubes that branch out to the various lobes in each lung by separating into smaller tubes called bronchi. The bronchi further separate into even smaller air tubes that we call bronchioles. At the end of each of the bronchioles, are tiny sacs called the alveoli and these sacs are responsible for separating the oxygen from the carbon dioxide and other contaminants. Pure oxygen is later released into the blood, where it can be transported to the brain and other vital organs.
Other than tumors, there are two types of lung cancer that can develop:
Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC)
This is the most common type of lung cancer, making up 85% of cases. Adenocarcinoma is a common type of lung cancer among people who smoke or those who have smoked in the past. As it first develops on the outer layers of the lungs, it's more easily diagnosed and it offers the best chances for a full recovery. Adenocarcinoma can be recognized because it excretes mucus and similar substances.
Squamous cell carcinoma is more difficult to diagnose because it infects the cells inside the airways that are within the lungs. These airway cells are called squamous cells, which gives this type of lung cancer its name. Squamous cell carcinoma affects the main airway branch in the lungs and is common among people with a history of heavy smoking habits.
The third most common type of NSCLC is large cell carcinoma. This is a type of cancer that can start anywhere in the lungs and spreads extremely fast. Due to how quickly it can spread, it's also the most difficult type of lung cancer to treat. It's difficult to diagnose the condition before it spreads, which is why treatments may not be as effective as those for other types of non-small cell lung cancer.
Small Cell Lung Cancer
Sometimes called oat cell cancer, small cell lung cancer affects only 15% of lung cancer patients. Even though small cell lung cancer spreads rapidly and is often widespread by the time it's diagnosed, it responds especially well to radiation and chemotherapy treatments. While this is good news for someone with small cell lung cancer, the downside is that this type of cancer does recur in most cases.
We know that tobacco smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer and has been determined to be the primary cause in more than 80% of cases. This includes smokers, those who have quit smoking, and those who have been exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke. Researchers have also found that the risk is cumulative, meaning you raise your risks for lung cancer by continuing to smoke or by increasing the amount you smoke a day.
Radon is a colorless and odorless gas that's mostly produced as a result of uranium in rocks and soil breaking down. In an outdoor environment, the amount of radon in the air is too low to be harmful. However, radon can pass through a home’s walls, particularly through basement walls that are positioned below ground level. Since the air in the home is confined, radon concentrations can grow to harmful levels. Even among nonsmokers, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.
While the use of asbestos is extremely limited in the modern era, that wasn't always the case. This material was commonly used in home insulation until it was recognized as a carcinogen or cancer-causing agent. Once asbestos is disrupted through damaged insulation or ceiling tiles, the fibers it releases are inhaled and cause a condition called mesothelioma.
A surprising cause of lung cancer is believed to be beta carotene. In two different studies, it was found that smokers who also took beta carotene supplements had a significantly greater risk of developing lung cancer. Another way that seemingly innocent activities raised lung cancer risks was discovered in Southeast Asia and South America. There, drinking water was found to have high concentrations of arsenic, which is another carcinogenic compound. While this isn't an issue in the United States where the water goes through a thorough refining process, everyone should be aware that arsenic exposure raises cancer risks.
As with any type of cancer, lung cancer responds better to treatment when it can be diagnosed early. Even though your doctor can diagnose a case of lung cancer, he won't think to check for it unless you report symptoms of the illness to him. The following signs and symptoms can help you and your doctor screen for lung cancer early.
Diagnosing Lung Cancer
There are a few different ways your doctor can screen you for lung cancer. The first step is often to conduct non-invasive imaging tests, such as X-rays and CT scans. These tests can help a doctor identify legions and abnormal masses in the lining of the lungs.
Another test that's helpful is called sputum cytology. Essentially, this is nothing more than examining your sputum, which is a combination of saliva and mucus, under a microscope. If you have a persistent cough, your sputum may contain lung cancer cells.
In some situations, it may be necessary to biopsy, or take a tissue sample from your lungs. This can usually be done with a minimally invasive procedure, using a lighted tube and other very small surgical instruments to reach your lungs and withdraw a tissue sample. The instruments may be passed down your airway to get to your lungs, or they may be pushed behind your breastplate through an incision in the base of the neck.
Treating Lung Cancer
A surgical procedure is one option to consider for eliminating cancer cells in the lungs, although this option will depend on how far cancer has spread. Either a portion of a lung or an entire lung may be removed if the cancer is confined to one part of the lung. The goal is to ensure all of the cancer cells have been extracted to ensure cancer won't continue to spread.
This is the most commonly known form of treatment, which involves bombarding the affected area with enough radiation to kill unhealthy cells. Even if you have had surgery, your doctor may recommend radiation treatments to ensure all of the unhealthy cells have been eradicated. In some situations, a combination of radiation and chemotherapy may be used instead of surgery.
This involves the use of drugs that are engineered to target and destroy cancer cells. The drugs may be given orally or intravenously and are usually administered over the course of several weeks or months. In some cases, chemotherapy is used to reduce the presence of cancer cells in the lungs to ensure a surgical extraction of damaged tissue will be more effective.
Under ideal circumstances, your own immune system is strong enough to fight off cancerous cells on its own. However, cancer cells have defensive mechanisms that help them hide from the immune system. In Immunotherapy, treatments are designed to wear down those defenses, allowing the immune system to fight cancer cells as intended. This type of treatment is usually used with patients whose lung cancer has metastasized or spread to other parts of the body.
Future Treatment Options
Scientists continue to look for new ways to successfully treat lung cancer. Some focus on creating targeted drugs that can identify the abnormalities in cancer cells. Other ideas involve gene therapy and the use of hormones to treat cancer patients. As research continues, we will likely see many more options developed for treating lung cancer that may not produce the same side effects that existing treatments cause.
If you have several risk factors for developing lung cancer or have experienced respiratory difficulties recently, you should consult your doctor. Through testing and screening processes, your doctor can determine whether or not you do have this type of cancer. If you do, early diagnosis and treatment will improve your chances for a successful recovery.
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