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Lung cancer

About lung cancer

Lung cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the United States and, by far, the leading cause of cancer deaths. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), more than 234,000 Americans were diagnosed with lung cancer in 2018. An estimated 154,000 Americans died from lung cancer in 2018, more than three times more than colorectal cancer, the next most deadly cancer, according to the NCI. Lung cancer accounts for 25 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States.

The lungs are spongy organs that sit on both sides of the chest. The left lung has two lobes; the right lung has three. When a person inhales, air passes through the windpipe into the lungs, where the oxygen is removed and delivered to the bloodstream. When a person exhales, carbon dioxide is expelled from the body. Like a tree or plant, the lungs have branches called bronchioles, which lead to tiny balloon-like sacs called alveoli. Most lung cancers are considered adenocarcinomas, which form in mucus-secreting glands, such as the alveoli.

Types of lung cancer

There are two main types of lung cancer:

Non-small cell lung cancer: This type of cancer accounts for 80-90 percent of all lung cancers. Non-small cell lung cancer has several subtypes, but most are adenocarcinomas or squamous cell carcinomas.

Small cell lung cancer: Ten to 20 percent of lung cancers are small cell lung cancers. This type of lung cancer is most commonly associated with tobacco smoking.

Learn more about lung cancer types

What are lung nodules?

Lung nodules, also called pulmonary nodules, are small growths found inside the lung. Most lung nodules are benign and develop no symptoms. In fact, many lung nodules are discovered during chest X-rays or CT scans to diagnose other conditions. Most lung nodules range in size from a little smaller than a marble to about the size of a golf ball. Lung nodules may be caused by an infection, but they may also be caused by smoking tobacco.

Some lung nodules are cancerous tumors, and may grow over time, causing breathing problems and other issues. If a nodule is discovered during an imaging test, your doctor may want to monitor it to see whether it grows or changes shape.

Learn more about rapid lung-nodule diagnoses at CTCA Chicago and CTCA Tulsa

Who gets lung cancer?

As with many cancers, the risk of developing lung tumors increases significantly with age. According to the NCI:

  • More than 90 percent of all new lung cancer cases are diagnosed in people older than 55.
  • The median age of a patient at diagnosis is 70.
  • Men are at a higher risk of developing lung cancer than women.
  • African-Americans are in the highest risk group of developing lung cancer.

Although tobacco smoking significantly increases a person’s risk of developing the lung tumors, people who have never smoked may develop lung cancer, too. Secondhand smoke, exposure to pollutants or asbestos and exposure to radon may increase the risk of developing lung cancer. People with a family history of lung cancer may also have a higher risk.

Get answers to top lung cancer questions