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Cancer care: Lung cancer

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Lung cancer prevention and detection


The most common lung cancer symptom is a cough that won't go away.

Other symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing up blood
  • loss of appetite or unintentional weight loss
  • fatigue.

If you have possible lung cancer symptoms, your doctor may use pulmonary function tests to confirm how bad your symptoms are and how they can be alleviated. Pulmonary function tests are a group of tests that measure how well the lungs take in and release air and how well they move oxygen into the blood.

What causes symptoms of lung cancer?

Cigarette smoking causes about 90 percent of lung cancer cases.

  • Quitting smoking or never starting are the best ways to prevent lung cancer symptoms.
  • Secondhand smoke comes from the burning tips of cigarettes, pipes and cigars, and smoke exhaled by smokers. About 3,000 people each year die of lung cancer caused by breathing in secondhand smoke.

Asbestos can also cause symptoms of lung cancer. Workers who regularly breathe in asbestos dust have a high risk of getting lung cancer.

Lung cancer symptoms also may be caused by the tumor spreading to other areas of the body. Symptoms depend on where the cancer has spread.

For example, if cancer has gone from the lungs to the brain, you may have headaches, nausea, vomiting, confusion or weakness.

Source: American Cancer Society, All About Lung Cancer – Non-small Cell, All About Lung Cancer – Small Cell; Virginia Piper Cancer Institute
Reviewed by: Katie Schwarzkopf, manager, Lung Program at the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute - Abbott Northwestern Hospital
First Published: 09/11/2009
Last Reviewed: 09/01/2011


Scans for lung cancer detection

Lung cancer detection begins with scans that allow doctors to see inside the body and find tumors.

  • A CT scan provides a detailed picture of one's lungs and chest.
  • An MRI scan is similar to a CT scan but it uses magnetic fields instead of radiation to create a picture.
  • A PET scan shows how the body's cells act in the presence of sugar. Normal cells take in sugar and use it to make energy. Cancer cells usually take in more sugar than normal cells.

Although scans for lung cancer detection can find tumors, they do not prove you have cancer. They give your doctor an idea of areas that look abnormal and should be tested further.

Biopsies for lung cancer detection

A biopsy is the removal of a tissue sample from a tumor to determine if it is cancer.

Biopsies for lung cancer detection are done in different ways, depending on the location and the size of the tumor.

  • A bronchoscopy allows a pulmonologist to see the inside of one's lungs and airways. Bronchoscopy with the superDimension inReachTM System can help doctors see deeper into the lungs than regular bronchoscopy.
  • During a CT guided fine needle aspiration the radiologist inserts a needle into the chest wall and uses the needle to take a sample of the tissue. This is done with the guidance of a CT scan in order to accurately get a tissue sample from the tumor.
  • A mediastinoscopy is a procedure in which a small incision is made in the neck. A mediastinoscope (a thin tube with a light at the end) is inserted through the opening to take a biopsy. The tissue sample is then examined under a microscope.
  • During a video-assisted thoracoscopy (VATS) a surgeon places a scope (a tube with a tiny camera on the end) through a small incision in the chest in order to remove a sample of lung tissue. VATS is less invasive than traditional lung surgery. This means you may recover faster and begin treatment sooner.
  • Endobronchial ultrasound (EBUS) allows a doctor to see inside the lungs and airways. While looking at a live ultrasound image, the doctor can pass a scope through the mouth or nose and windpipe to precisely enter the lungs and take a biopsy.

Source: American Cancer Society, All About Lung Cancer – Non-small Cell, All About Lung Cancer – Small Cell; Virginia Piper Cancer Institute
Reviewed by: Paula Colwell, RN, manager, Virginia Piper Cancer Institute Lung Cancer Program
First Published: 09/11/2009
Last Reviewed: 09/11/2009