Top questions about lung cancer

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on May 6, 2022.

What you should know about lung cancer

Lung cancer can affect anyone. It is one of the most common cancers in the United States, after breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men. If you or a loved one is diagnosed with lung cancer, one of the first things you can do is educate yourself about the disease and available treatment options.

What are the signs of lung cancer?

Common lung cancer symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, coughing up blood, loss of appetite and fatigue. However, the majority of patients experience no symptoms, which is why it is important for people with a high risk of lung cancer to undergo screenings.

Are nodules found on the lung always cancerous?

No. The majority of lung nodules, which are suspicious spots or masses detected on the lung through X-rays or other diagnostics, are not cancerous. A thorough and accurate diagnosis is crucial to determining whether you have cancer and what treatment options may be available. Advances in diagnostics have enabled our lung cancer experts to develop a program that evaluates lung nodules and returns a diagnosis in just a few days, condensing a process that typically takes weeks.

Can non-smokers get lung cancer?

Yes. Smoking is the leading risk factor for lung cancer. But lung cancer also occurs in people who have never smoked or who did not have prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke. Other risks include exposure to asbestos, radon and other environmental chemicals. Non-smokers account for about 10 percent of lung cancer patients, and they have a higher incidence of mutations that may be treated with targeted therapies.

How common is lung cancer in women n?

Visit the American Cancer Society’s website for the latest statistics on lung cancer incidence.

What innovations are helping the fight against lung cancer?

Treatment advances in lung cancer are moving in two different directions: targeted therapy and immunotherapy. Targeted therapies are designed to interrupt the function of certain molecules driving the growth of cancer cells, stopping the cells from dividing and spreading. Immunotherapy taps the immune system’s illness-fighting tendencies, directing it to locate and kill cancer cells. The FDA has approved a number of targeted therapies and immunotherapies for the treatment of lung cancer.

Questions about lung cancer treatment

Treatment for lung cancer depends on many factors, including the type and stage of the disease. Here are the answers to some common questions about lung cancer treatment:

Is chemotherapy the only treatment option for my lung cancer?

There are a variety of treatment options available to treat lung cancer, each with its own potential benefits, including surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and targeted therapy.

Surgery often involves the removal of a tumor and surrounding tissue during an operation. It may be used to diagnose or learn more about the cancer. Various types of surgery may be an option, depending on the location, size and type of cancer.

Radiation therapy is another common cancer treatment. It harnesses high-energy waves (X-rays, radioactive particles) to destroy or damage cancer cells. Radiation may be used in combination with other treatments to reverse the growth of cancer cells.

Chemotherapy uses strong anti-cancer medicines to treat cancer. Dozens of different chemotherapy drugs are available in the fight against lung cancer today. Doctors choose certain drugs based on the type of cancer and its stage.

Targeted therapy uses drugs to attack the inner workings of cancer cells. This more direct attack is different from chemotherapy in that these drugs seek out cancerous cells but do not harm healthy ones. Targeted therapies often have different and less severe side effects than standard chemotherapy drugs.

Surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and targeted treatments—alone or in combination—are all used to treat lung cancer. The length of treatment and recovery depends on the stage of the cancer and the patient’s underlying health issues.

Is genomic testing an option for me?

Advanced genomic testing has become the standard of care for some lung cancer patients, including those diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer. These assessments examine cancer at a cellular level, identifying DNA mutations that are responsible for driving the growth of a particular tumor. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved several drugs designed to target certain abnormalities that are revealed during genomic tests. Genomic testing may not be right for every patient, so it’s important for you to talk to your oncologist about whether you are a candidate.

What treatment-related side effects should I expect?

Lung cancer and its treatments may cause a number of side effects that impact your quality of life and your ability to continue with treatment. No two people have the same response to cancer treatment, and side effects may vary depending on what type of treatment you pursue. Common lung cancer-related side effects include pain, fatigue, anxiety, depression and weight loss. Evidence-based supportive therapies like pain management, nutrition therapy, mind-body medicine, oncology rehabilitation and spiritual support may help reduce the severity or frequency of side effects, allowing patients to continue treatment and get back to life.

Should I think about taking part in a clinical trial?

Clinical trials are research studies designed to determine if new treatments are safe and effective, or whether they are more appropriate for some patients than certain available treatments. Trials typically take years before yielding enough data to win FDA approval. While they take their course, the studies may offer participating patients new options that would otherwise be unavailable to them, especially after they have exhausted conventional treatments. In lung cancer, for example, clinical trials have led to the discovery of targeted treatments and have helped define how best to combine chemotherapy and radiation.

Questions to ask your doctor

Asking questions of your doctor can help you make more informed decisions about your care. Open communication between patient and doctor is extremely important. Here are answers to some common questions lung cancer patients should ask their doctors:

How much experience do you have treating my type and stage of lung cancer?

Lung cancer is a serious disease, and pursuing an appropriate, aggressive treatment plan as soon as possible is important. Oncologists who are not only experienced in treating cancer, but in treating your type of lung cancer, are better equipped to explain the full list of available treatment options. Do not be afraid to ask whether your doctor has extensive experience treating a specific type and stage of lung cancer and whether he or she is a board-certified specialist.

How successful have you been in treating patients with my type and stage of lung cancer?

Doctors and the facilities they may work for are not required by law to publish the survival rates of the patients they treat, but some choose to do so. Others may be willing to provide these statistics upon request. Learning as much as possible about your doctors and the facilities he or she uses can help you come to a more balanced, well-rounded decision about your care options.

Why should I get a second opinion?

Having confidence in your doctor and treatment plan is crucial when fighting cancer. A second opinion can confirm the type and stage of the disease and provide you with additional information about the cancer and available treatment options. A second opinion may also help you feel more confident in your treatment plan, and help you find a doctor you really like. Getting a second opinion is your right, so you should not be intimidated about telling your doctor about your desire to get a second opinion.

How accurate are diagnostic tests for lung cancer?

A wide range of diagnostic evaluations may be used to determine or confirm a lung cancer diagnosis. They include X-rays, lab tests, a CT angiogram, CT scan, biopsy, bronchoscopy, lung nodule analysis, PET scan and endobronchial ultrasound. Advances in technology have led to more accurate and thorough diagnostics for lung cancer and can help you develop an appropriate treatment plan for your type and stage of lung cancer. That is why it is important to find a doctor and facility with access to advanced diagnostic tools to evaluate the disease—before, during and after treatment.

How important is the stage of my lung cancer?

Staging refers to where the cancer originated, its size and whether it has spread. Making an informed decision about your treatment plan starts with knowing whether and how far the disease has spread.

Small cell lung cancer is diagnosed in two stages:

  • Limited stage, when cancer is found in one lung, sometimes including nearby lymph nodes
  • Extensive stage, when the cancer has spread to the other lung, the fluid around the lung (the pleura) or to other organs in the body
  • Non-small cell lung cancer, which has five stages, ranging from 0 to 4, with 4 being the most severe

Next topic: What are the facts about lung cancer?

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