Cancer of any kind is no joke, especially not lung cancer. We’ve all been extra curious about lung health since the COVID 19 pandemic, let’s shed a little more light on how you can better take care of your lungs. Not to mention how to spot early warning signs of cancer.
Do you have a cough that just won’t go away? Do you know what Non Small Cell lung cancer is? Have you ever heard of Horner Syndrome? We’ll discuss all this and more in today! So grab a snack, get comfy and let’s get into it.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer for both men and women in the United States, so we figured the more you know about this topic, the better. Cancer in general is something that happens when the cells in our bodies mutate when exposed to harmful chemicals we breathe in. Smoking will put you at the greatest risk of lung cancer, but there’s also other factors like air pollution to think about. There are also many different kinds of lung cancer that we’ll cover today. But first…
What Causes Lung Cancer?
It’s no surprise that smoking is the number one thing that causes lung cancer, about 90 percent of cases are caused by cigarettes. Among non-smokers, radon is the most common cause. Radon is a silent killer, as it’s odorless and colorless. It’s a radioactive gas that lives in the soil and is likely to seep in through your basement. One in 15 homes could have radon exposure.
There are also many other carcinogens that can up your rate of cancer, not just lung, and some might be found in your workplace. Especially if you work closely with asbestos, diesel engine exhaust, welding fumes, nickel, chromium and more.
Genetics also play a role here. If you have a family history then inherited genetic mutations could also be a cause. So find out if lung cancer runs in your family.
It all depends on the individual, sometimes it’s hard to pin-point an exact cause.
The Different Types of Lung Cancer
Nothing is ever simple, is it? Well, this includes cancer. Most types of lung cancer can be placed in one of two larger categories; small cell lung cancer and non small cell lung cancer.
Small Cell Lung Cancer
This is a type that tends to develop quickly and makes up for about 15-20% of lung cancer cases. As the name suggests these are smaller forms of cancer. There are a few types that can be detected under a microscope or by a tumor that grows in the lung
tissue. If you are diagnosed with lung cancer, it will be in stages, for this type of cancer there are only two stages, limited which means the cancer is only found in one lung, and extensive which means the cancer has spread throughout the one lung, all the way up to distant organs in the body.
Non Small Cell Lung Cancer
This is the type that smoking causes and makes up for about 80-85% of cases. This one is typically known to grow slower than small cell cancers. You will know what stage of cancer you have by the size of the tumor. For this type of cancer the stages go as follows:
- Stage 1 – the cancer is in one lung
- Stage 2 – the cancer is in one lung and nearby lymph nodes
- Stage 3 – the cancer is affecting the middle of the chest
- Stage 3A – cancer is only on one side of the chest, lung and lymph nodes
- Stage 3B – cancer has spread to the other side of the chest and or lymph nodes
- Stage 4 – cancer is in both lungs, around the lungs and possibly other organs
There are a few smaller categories of this type as well but basically, any cancer found in the air passages, the cells that produce mucus, a mixture of squamous and mucus producing cells or ones that can’t be classified as small cell – will be found here.
Now to be clear, there are many, MANY different types of lung cancer, including some rare types. We won’t go into particulars, just know that, if detected early and with modern advances in medicine, you can get a head start on treatment before things get out of hand. So with that, let’s get into the symptoms.
Symptoms of Lung Cancer
Small disclaimer, we are not doctors so we’re just giving you some ideas on what some symptoms could be. If you think you have lung cancer you need to see a doctor and get checked out.
Some early signs can include:
- A stubborn cough that just won’t go away or lung infections that won’t go away
- Chest pain that get worse when you breath deep, try to cough or laugh too hard
- Unexplained weight loss
- Coughing up blood or phlegm
- Loss of appetite
- Loss of voice
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling weak and tired
- You start wheezing
These symptoms are pretty evergreen when it comes to illness. They could be caused by so many things, so if you have a few of these, don’t spiral thinking you have lung cancer. If you’re worried, get screened. Unfortunately lung cancer won’t always provide any of the symptoms we just talked about until it’s developed more or spread to another part of the body.
You may then feel symptoms like:
- Bone pain, commonly felt in the back or the hips
- Jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes
- Headaches, balance issues, numbness of the limbs, or seizures
- Lymph node swelling
If you have a bunch of different symptoms it will be classified as a syndrome. There’s a few that pertain to lung cancer such as:
This usually affects those suffering from cancer in the upper part of the lungs. These tumors will affect the eyes and face with symptoms like:
- Weak upper eyelid that could include drooping
- No sweating on one side of the face
- One pupil will be smaller than the other
- Severe shoulder pain
The SVC is a really large vein that travels through the head and arms to the heart. If there’s a tumor pressing on this vein you’ll feel swelling in the face, neck, arms and upper chest. This is because the blood cannot flow as smoothly causing a backup in the veins. It can also cause headaches, dizziness and in more extreme cases you could pass out. This usually happens slowly over time, but it can get out of control and be life threatening.
There’s one more syndrome you should be aware of…
This is when lung cancer pumps hormone-like substances into your blood causing all kinds of issues throughout your body. This one is most commonly associated with small cell lung cancer. There are many types of paraneoplastic syndromes but we’ll just give you some symptoms:
- May cause the kidneys to retain water and lower salt levels in the blood
- May cause muscle weakness
- Loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting
- Restlessness, confusion
- Weight gain
- High blood pressure
- Loss of balance
- High levels of calcium in the blood
- Thirst and frequent urination
- Blood clots
Again, these can be symptoms of many, many things so let’s get into how you test for lung cancer.
Screening for Cancer
Most times, you will screen for cancer only because you’re feeling the effects. Medical history and a physical exam can help you discover any problems. If any are found you doctor may perform further tests like:
- Imaging tests
This is just what it sounds like, medical professionals will use either x-rays, sound waves, radioactive substances, or magnetic fields to take a look at your lungs. This can tell them if you have cancer at all, if it’s spread to other areas, how big the tumor is, if treatment is working and to check in after you’ve gotten rid of the cancer. These include, X-rays, CT scans, MRIs and bone scans.
- A Biopsy
This is where your doctor will either take a piece of tissue or mucus you cough up from the lungs to a lab for further testing. Some biopsies require surgery while others just use a needle.
This technology can be used to examine the lymph nodes or the space between the lungs.
- Lung Function Tests
Pulmonary Function Tests or PFTs are there to check how well your lungs are working after you’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer. If it comes to surgery and if you’re someone who needs to have part of their lungs removed, it’s helpful to know how well your lungs can function. If the lungs are otherwise healthy, then the doctor would know it’s then safe to go ahead with this type of surgery. If someone’s lung function is poor, then surgery probably wouldn’t be an option.
These are by no means all the tests the doctors can and will perform but it gives you an idea of how many options are available. These tests will be used to determine what stage of lung cancer you’re at.
So, this may all seem overwhelming, let’s talk about prevention. Here are some great ways you can protect your lungs so you don’t have to worry
The first thing is the most important and obvious.
As we mentioned in the beginning, smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer and COPD. Cigarettes make it more difficult to breathe, they cause swelling of the lungs, chronic inflammation and over time will ruin your lung tissue, possibly triggering cancer. It’s never too late to quit smoking, and if you do, there are plenty of resources out there for you.
You’ve heard us say this before, but we’ll say it again. A healthy lifestyle means eating right and exercising. Being physically active will help you in so many ways, not just your lungs, but also your heart, your brain and your mental health. But you can’t have one without the other, you also need to…
A healthy diet will show up in so many places, including your lungs! There are many foods that are great for the lungs like pumpkin, apples, turmeric and more.
The lungs are key to living a long and healthy life. It’s easy to take them for granted. The lungs could use a little TLC from you every now and then.