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Cancer develops when there is uncontrollable growth of abnormal cells in the body. When this happens in the lungs, the cells form tumours that begin to grow, reducing a person’s ability to breathe. The growth of the tumours, along with the pattern of rampant abnormal-cell growth, results in the development of lung cancer in one or both lungs.
What is lung cancer?
Lung cancer is grouped into 2 main types: small cell and non-small cell cancer.
Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is a rapidly developing type of lung cancer that predominantly develops in heavy smokers. With SCLC, the cancer cells tend to multiply much faster and spread to other parts of the body more easily during a process called metastasis. While it can be diagnosed earlier, in most cases it is usually only diagnosed after it has spread to other parts of the body.
Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is a group of lung cancers which behave similarly, although they generally have a much slower rate of progression than SCLC and can therefore be detected earlier. This group of lung cancers includes subtypes such as adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and large cell carcinoma.
- Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of lung cancer. It is found in the outer parts of the lungs and usually develops in young people, non-smokers and women.
- Squamous cell carcinoma is often linked to a history of smoking and develops in the central part of the lungs or near the main airway.
- Large cell carcinoma can develop in any part of the lungs and spreads rapidly.
How is lung cancer diagnosed?
Lung cancer symptoms typically only occur in advanced or more severe cases, but the common signs may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- A persistent cough
- Unexplained weight loss
- Coughing up blood
Once lung cancer is diagnosed, further tests may be done to check the severity. This testing procedure is called ‘staging’ and will include an investigation of the lymph nodes and the rest of the body.
These tests could include procedures such as a CT scan, an MRI, a PET (positron emission tomography) scan and bone scans. Your doctor will decide which tests are recommended for your condition.
Are you at risk?
Common risk factors for lung cancer include:
- Exposure to second-hand smoke
- Family history of lung cancer
- Exposure to chemicals such as radon
Treatment options vary
The kind of treatment recommended by your healthcare professional will be determined based on the type of lung cancer you have and the stage of the cancer. Small cell lung cancer is usually treated with chemotherapy and radiation therapy, while non-small cell lung cancer may be treated with a combination of treatments. Some of the most common treatments include:
- Chemotherapy: Special medicines are used to shrink or kill the cancer cells. Medication may be taken orally or intravenously (by injection through your veins).
- Surgery: Involves an operation where cancerous tissue is removed from the affected areas.
- Radiation therapy: High-energy rays are used to kill cancer cells.
- Targeted therapy: Medication is used to block the growth and spread of cancer cells in the lungs. This may be given orally or intravenously.
Preventing lung cancer
In order to reduce your risk, there are a number of lifestyle changes or preventive measures you can take:
- Don’t start smoking. If you already do, get help quitting smoking by joining support groups.
- Avoid areas that are heavy in second-hand smoke as much as is possible. These include the smoking sections in bars and restaurants.
- Avoid carcinogens at work. For example, wear a mask and report unknown suspected chemicals.
- Follow a balanced, nutritious diet that includes a variety of fruit and vegetables.
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes per day.
You can find out more about 5 of the top 7 cancers affecting South Africans at the links below:
The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a healthcare professional. E&OE.
- Reviewed by Professor Michael Herbst, Health Specialist at the Cancer Association of South Africa
- Mayo Clinic. (2020). Lung Cancer: Symptoms & Causes. [online] Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lung-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20374620 [Accessed 13 April]
- Cancer Treatment Centers of America. (2020). Risk Factors for Lung Cancer. [online] Available at: https://www.cancercenter.com/cancer-types/lung-cancer/risk-factors [Accessed 13 April]
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). How Is Lung Cancer Diagnosed and Treated? [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/lung/basic_info/diagnosis_treatment.htm [Accessed 13 April]
- Cancer Care. (2020). Lung Cancer 101. [online] Available at: https://www.lungcancer.org/find_information/publications/163-lung_cancer_101/268-types_and_staging [Accessed 13 April]