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What is lung cancer?

Cancer of the lung, like all cancers, results from an abnormality in the body's basic unit of life, the cell. Normally, the body maintains a system of checks and balances on cell growth so that cells divide to produce new cells only when new cells are needed. Disruption of this system of checks and balances on cell growth results in an uncontrolled division and proliferation of cells that eventually forms a mass known as a tumor.

Tumors can be benign or malignant; when we speak of "cancer," we are referring to those tumors that are malignant. Benign tumors usually can be removed and do not spread to other parts of the body. Malignant tumors, on the other hand, often grow aggressively locally where they start, but tumor cells also can enter into the bloodstream or lymphatic system and then spread to other sites in the body. This process of spread is termed metastasis; the areas of tumor growth at these distant sites are called metastases. Since lung cancer tends to spread or metastasize very early after it forms, it is a very life-threatening cancer and one of the most difficult cancers to treat. While lung cancer can spread to any organ in the body, certain locations -- particularly the adrenal glands, liver, brain, and bones -- are the most common sites for lung cancer metastasis.

The lung also is a very common site for metastasis from malignant tumors in other parts of the body. Tumor metastases are made up of the same types of cells as the original (primary) tumor. For example, if prostate cancer spreads via the bloodstream to the lungs, it is metastatic prostate cancer in the lung and is not lung cancer.

The principal function of the lungs is to exchange gases between the air we breathe and the blood. Through the lung, carbon dioxide is removed from the bloodstream and oxygen enters the bloodstream. The right lung has three lobes, while the left lung is divided into two lobes and a small structure called the lingula that is the equivalent of the middle lobe on the right. The major airways entering the lungs are the bronchi, which arise from the trachea, which is outside the lungs. The bronchi branch into progressively smaller airways called bronchioles that end in tiny sacs known as alveoli where gas exchange occurs. The lungs and chest wall are covered with a thin layer of tissue called the pleura.

Lung cancers can arise in any part of the lung, but 90%-95% of cancers of the lung are thought to arise from the epithelial cells, the cells lining the larger and smaller airways (bronchi and bronchioles); for this reason, lung cancers are sometimes called bronchogenic cancers or bronchogenic carcinomas. (Carcinoma is another term for cancer.) Cancers also can arise from the pleura (called mesotheliomas) or rarely from supporting tissues within the lungs, for example, the blood vessels.

Return to Lung Cancer

See what others are saying

Comment from: Natalie, 65-74 Female (Caregiver) Published: October 18

My grandma was diagnosed with stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer last summer and has been trying different medications since then. She went to the Accident and Emergency due to a persistent cough for over a month and pain on her upper right back. After a CXR (chest x-ray), her upper right lung was found collapsed as described by the doctor and further biopsy tests were done which confirmed the cancer. She was given the oral targeted therapy at first and she was responding quite well. However her liver enzymes went too high and her body could not tolerate the drug. That's when she switched to a newer oral targeted therapy but this time the visible side effects were really bad, her face got swollen, and bad reactions with her eyes. She also had some skin reactions. Despite all the side effects she was experiencing, her tumors were not responding to the drug and they even grew bigger. She then switched to intravenous chemotherapy and had several times of radiotherapy before that, hoping to shrink the tumors a bit. She was responding quite well to it at first, however, she has severe anemia after receiving chemotherapy for several months. She had to stop the chemotherapy and that was when the cancer got out of control. Moreover, since the chemotherapy was causing the anemia, and her body condition is just simply too weak for other chemotherapies, she is currently just in pain control and was given some cough suppressants. Her problem of coughing up blood is also getting more severe recently. The loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting are actually making the condition much worse. She could not get enough nutrients for normal body functioning which made her more prone to infections and anemia. Also, constipation is another problem while there is not enough food consumption. Family support can make a huge difference in encouraging her throughout her journey of the condition and not to give up having treatments. She had her blood sample tested last week for a third generation targeted therapy, hopefully could switch to it after the results are out.

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Comment from: jennyford, 55-64 Female (Patient) Published: May 06

In November I went into the hospital with pancreatitis. They did a CT scan and found a nodule on my lung. After a PET scan that appeared hot I went to see a pulmonary surgeon. He said I had to have surgery for lung cancer. I had surgery to remove 1/3rd of my right lung. They said it was non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. But they got it all. That was three months ago. I cough until I throw up. The cough isn't from my throat, but my chest. The doctor did a CT and said he couldn't see anything. I feel like I can't get enough air.

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Comment from: karen, 55-64 Female (Patient) Published: October 06

I went to the doctor because I had no appetite. X-ray showed 2 little spots on top right lobe. Doctor didn't think it was cancer but went in, and had right lobe removed because it was cancer. It was so small, so no chemotherapy or radiation. That was almost 4 1\2 years ago. I am still cancer free far as I know. I don't have many tests run, guess they think it has gone.

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