Lung cancer kills more Americans than any other kind. In 2008, more than 200,000 people were diagnosed with lung cancer, and nearly 160,000 died from the disease. Lung cancer has one of the lowest survival rates of any kind—although it is one of the most common cancer diagnoses, much of the high mortality is due to the relatively high proportion of patients who die from the disease.
The leading cause of lung cancer is cigarette smoking. The longer you smoke, and the more you smoke, the higher your risk of lung cancer is; quitting smoking significantly reduces your chances of getting lung cancer. Even secondhand smoke can lead to cancer. Other causes include asbestos and other pollutants, arsenic exposure, and family history of cancer. In addition, a type of immune cell called a killer cell, which destroys tumors, can vary significantly from person to person. Some of those variants are more efficient than others in hunting down cancer cells.
One reason lung cancer is so often deadly is that there are few symptoms in the early, more treatable stages. If a cough doesn’t go away, if a chronic cough changes, or if you start coughing up blood, that may be a sign of lung cancer. Other symptoms include chest pain, wheezing, hoarseness, and unexplained weight loss. If you smoke or have other risk factors, and you find yourself with chronic headaches or bone pain, that might also indicate lung cancer.
The usual treatment for lung cancer is surgery, though in the later stages, when there is too much cancerous tissue for it to be safely removed, chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be used instead. These treatments can also be combined with surgery to destroy remaining tumor cells. Last month researchers announced a targeted technique that may provide an additional option for patients with the small-cell type of lung cancer. This treatment involves stopping the action of a protein instrumental in the development of these kinds of tumors.