Information, Symptoms, Treatments and Resources

Lung Cancer FAQ

Basic Information About Lung CancerDiagram of lung

Lung cancers are cancers that begin in the lungs. Other types of cancers may spread to the lungs from other organs. However, these are not lung cancers because they did not start in the lungs. When cancer cells spread from one organ to another, they are called metastases.


Research has found several risk factors for lung cancer. A "risk factor" is anything that changes risk of getting a disease. Different risk factors change risk by different amounts.

The risk factors for lung cancer include—

  • Smoking and being around others' smoke.
  • Things around us at home or work (such as radon gas).
  • Personal traits (such as having a family history of lung cancer).


Different people have different symptoms for lung cancer. Some people don't have any symptoms at all. About 25% of people with lung cancer do not have symptoms from advanced cancer when their lung cancer is found. Lung cancer symptoms may include—

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Coughing that doesn't go away.
  • Wheezing.
  • Coughing up blood.
  • Chest pain.
  • Fever.
  • Weight loss.

Other changes that can sometimes occur with lung cancer may include repeated bouts of pneumonia, changes in the shape of the fingertips, and swollen or enlarged lymph nodes (glands) in the upper chest and lower neck.


These symptoms can happen with other illnesses, too. People with symptoms should talk to their doctor, especially if they smoke, but even if they don't. Doctors can help find the cause.


Diagnosis and Treatment

A person's lung cancer diagnosis depends on the type of lung cancer present. The two main types of lung cancer are small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancer is more common than small cell lung cancer. These categories refer to what the cancer cells look like under a microscope.


The extent of disease is referred to as the stage. Information about how big a cancer is or how far it has spread is often used to determine the stage. Doctors use information about stage to plan treatment and to monitor progress.

Types of Treatment

There are several ways to treat lung cancer. The treatment depends on the type of lung cancer and how far it has spread. Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. People with lung cancer often get more than one kind of treatment.

  • Surgery: Doctors cut out and remove cancer tissue in an operation.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy involves the use of drugs to shrink or kill the cancer. The drugs could be pills or medicines given through an IV (intravenous) tube. Sometimes chemotherapy includes both IV drugs and pills.
  • Radiation: Radiation uses high-energy rays (similar to X-rays) to try to kill the cancer cells. The rays are aimed at the part of the body where the cancer is.


These treatments may be provided by different doctors on your medical team. Pulmonologists are doctors who are experts in diseases of the lungs. Surgeons are doctors who perform operations. Medical oncologists are doctors who are experts in cancer and treat cancers with medicines. Radiation oncologists are doctors who treat cancers with radiation.



People with lung cancer may experience symptoms caused by the cancer or by cancer treatments (side effects). Common symptoms caused by lung cancer include shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, coughing up blood, pain, fever, and weight loss. Side effects vary depending on the type of treatment. People who want information about symptoms and side effects and those that can occur with their treatment plan should talk to their doctors. Also those with symptoms or concerns should discuss them with their doctors. Doctors can help answer questions and make a plan to control symptoms.



Risk Factors

Research has found several risk factors for lung cancer. A risk factor is anything that changes the chance of getting a disease. Different risk factors change risk by different amounts.

The risk factors for lung cancer include—

  • Smoking and being around others' smoke.
  • Things around us at home or work, such as radon gas.
  • Personal traits, such as having a family history of lung cancer).

Smoking and Secondhand Smoke

Cigarette smoking causes lung cancer. In fact, smoking tobacco is the major risk factor for lung cancer. In the United States, about 90% of lung cancer deaths in men and almost 80% of lung cancer deaths in women are due to smoking. People who smoke are 10 to 20 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than people who do not smoke. The longer a person smokes and the more cigarettes smoked each day, the more risk goes up. 


People who quit smoking have a lower risk of lung cancer than if they had continued to smoke, but their risk is higher than the risk for people who never smoked. As more people quit smoking, lung cancer rates will continue to fall, the percentage of lung cancers that occur in smokers will decrease, and the percentage of lung cancers that occur in people who have quit will rise.


Smoking also causes cancer of the voicebox (larynx), mouth and throat, esophagus, bladder, kidney, pancreas, cervix, and stomach, and causes acute myeloid leukemia.

Using cigars or pipes also increases risk for lung cancer, but not as much as smoking cigarettes. 


Smoke from other people's cigarettes (secondhand smoke) causes lung cancer as well. Secondhand smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, more than 50 of which cause cancer in people or animals. Every year, about 3,000 nonsmokers die from lung cancer due to secondhand smoke. 

Things That May Cause Cancer at Home and Work

Several things may cause cancer in the workplace or even in the home. For example, radon gas causes lung cancer and is sometimes found in people's homes. Radon is an odorless, colorless gas that comes from rocks and dirt and can get trapped in houses and buildings. Examples of substances found at some workplaces that increase risk include asbestos, arsenic, and some forms of silica and chromium. For many of these substances, the risk of getting lung cancer is even higher for those who also smoke. Other substances may increase lung cancer risk as well.

Family History

Risk of lung cancer may be higher if a person's parents, siblings (brothers or sisters), or children have had lung cancer. This increased risk could come from one or more things. They may share behaviors, like smoking. They may live in the same place where there are carcinogens such as radon. They may have inherited increased risk in their genes.


Scientists are studying many different foods to see how they may change the risk of getting lung cancer. However, any effect diet may have on lung cancer risk is small compared with the risk from smoking. Eating a lot of fat and cholesterol might increase risk of lung cancer. Drinking a lot of alcohol may raise risk as well. However, it's hard to tell how much of the risk in people who drink is actually due to tobacco smoke, since many people both smoke and drink.


Some foods may actually help prevent lung cancer. Diets high in fruits and vegetables likely decrease cancer risk. Diets high in vitamin C, vitamin E, or selenium also may help protect against lung cancer. The effect of eating foods with carotenoids like beta-carotene on lung cancer risk is uncertain. Carotenoids can be found in carrots, sweet potatoes, and some green vegetables. Eating these foods may lower chances of lung cancer. Taking beta-carotene supplements (pills) is not recommended, however, since it may actually increase risk in some smokers.



There may be several ways to reduce your risk of developing lung cancer.

Don’t Smoke

Tobacco use is the major cause of lung cancer in the United States. About 90% of lung cancer deaths in men and almost 80% of lung cancer deaths in women in this country are due to smoking. The most important thing a person can do to prevent lung cancer is to not start smoking, or to quit if he or she currently smokes.


Quitting smoking will lower risk of lung cancer compared to not quitting. This is true no matter how old one is or how much he or she smokes. The longer a person goes without smoking, the more his or her risk will improve compared to those who continue to smoke. However, the risk in people who have quit is still higher than the risk in people who have never smoked.


CDC helps support a national network of quitlines that makes free "quit smoking" support available by telephone to smokers anywhere in the United States. The toll-free number is 1-800-QUITNOW (1-800-784-8669), or visit Web Site Icon.


For smokers, avoiding other things that increase risk for lung cancer may help lower risk, but not as much as quitting smoking.

Make Your Home and Workplace Safer

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that all homes be tested for radon. Radon detectors can be purchased or arrangements can be made for qualified testers to come into the home. 


Health and safety guidelines in the workplace can help workers avoid things that can cause cancer (carcinogens).

Eat Lots of Fruits and Vegetables

Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables may help protect against lung cancer.



Screening means testing for a disease when there are no symptoms or history of that disease. Doctors give a screening test to find a disease early on, when treatment may work better. Scientists have studied several types of screening tests for lung cancer. A review of these studies by experts shows that more information is needed. It is not known if these tests can help prevent deaths from lung cancer.


Examples of screening tests for lung cancer include—

  • Chest X-rays.
  • Sputum cytology (looking for cancer cells in phlegm under a microscope).
  • CAT scans of the lungs (CAT scans are detailed images of the inside of the body, made by a computer that combines X-ray images taken from different angles).

There is fair evidence that low-dose CAT scans, chest X-rays, and sputum cytology can find cancers earlier than they would be found without screening, but there is little evidence that these screening tests actually prevent people from dying from lung cancer.


Screening also has its downside. Screening tests may find spots (abnormalities) in the lungs that are not cancers. However, a screening test does not always show the difference between cancers and other abnormalities that are not cancers. More tests may be needed to find out if the spot is a cancer. These tests might include removing a small piece of lung tissue for more testing (biopsy). This means that some people might have a surgical procedure even though they don't have cancer. These procedures have risks associated with them. They also can cause anxiety and cost money.


Experts do not know if the benefits of screening outweigh the potential harms. For these reasons, experts do not currently recommend for or against lung cancer screening. Screening for lung cancer with chest X-rays was once promoted by some experts, but researchers found out that people who were screened did not have a lower death rate than people who were not screened.


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