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The lungs are a pair of cone-shaped organs made up of spongy, pinkish-gray tissue, and are part of our respiratory system. They take up most of the space in the chest and are separated from each other by the dediastinum, an area that contains the heart, trachea, esophagus, and many lymph nodes. The right lung has three sections called lobes; it is a little larger than the left lung, which has two lobes.

Most lung cancer is caused by cigarette smoking. The more a person smokes the higher the risk of getting cancer, not just of the lung, but also cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, larynx, bladder, kidney, cervix, and pancreas.

Lung cancers are generally divided into two types: nonsmall cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer. Each type is treated differently.

Nonsmall lung cancer is more common and has three main sub-types:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma, the most common type in men.
  • Adenocarcinoma, which usually begins along the outer edges of the lungs and under the lining of the bronchi.
  • Large cell carcinomas, which usually begin along the outer edges of the lungs.

Small cell lung cancer is sometimes called oat cell cancer because the cancer cells may look like oats when viewed under a microscope. This type of lung cancer grows rapidly and quickly spreads to other organs.

As with many other cancers, lung cancer does not cause symptoms when it first develops. A cough is the most common symptom and is likely to occur when a tumor irritates the lining of the airways or blocks the passage of air. Other symptoms may be constant chest pain, shortness of breath, wheezing, repeated bouts of pneumonia, coughing up blood or hoarseness.

The lungs are susceptible to another type of cancer called mesothelioma. This type of cancer is caused by exposure to asbestos.

Lung cancer can be diagnosed positively only with a biopsy, however, your doctor may perform several other examinations before a biopsy is ordered. You may have a chest x-ray, a CT (or CAT scan), or a sputum test. If the results of these tests cause the doctor to suspect cancer a biopsy may be performed by a bronchoscopy, needle aspiration, thoracentesis, or a thoracotomy.

The type of treatment used for lung cancer will be determined by the type of cancer present, its stage, location, the health and general well-being of the patient and other factors as well. Treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation or a combination of these.

For those who are interested here is a link to a non-profit grass-roots organization founded to foster better awareness of lung cancer research and funding.

Additional information regarding lung cancer and its treatments can be found at the following cancer links:

See our reading materials on lung cancer.

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material for this page excerpted from NIH documents with permission


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