Lung cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the lungs. Your lungs are two spongy organs in your chest that take in oxygen when you inhale and release carbon dioxide when you exhale.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, among both men and women. Lung cancer claims more lives each year than do colon, prostate, ovarian and breast cancers combined.
People who smoke have the greatest risk of lung cancer, though lung cancer can also occur in people who have never smoked. The risk of lung cancer increases with the length of time and number of cigarettes you've smoked. If you quit smoking, even after smoking for many years, you can significantly reduce your chances of developing lung cancer.
Lung cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells that start off in one or both lungs; usually in the cells that line the air passages. The abnormal cells do not develop into healthy lung tissue, they divide rapidly and form tumors.
As tumors become larger and more numerous, they undermine the lung’s ability to provide the bloodstream with oxygen. Tumors that remain in one place and do not appear to spread are known as “benign tumors”.
Malignant tumors, the more dangerous ones, spread to other parts of the body either through the bloodstream or the lymphatic system. Metastasis refers to cancer spreading beyond its site of origin to other parts of the body. When cancer spreads it is much harder to treat successfully.
Primary lung cancer originates in the lungs, while secondary lung cancer starts somewhere else in the body, metastasizes, and reaches the lungs. They are considered different types of cancers and are not treated in the same way.
According to the National Cancer Institute, by the end of 2015 there will have been 221,200 new lung cancer diagnoses and 158,040 lung-cancer related deaths in the USA.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 7.6 million deaths globally each year are caused by cancer; cancer represents 13% of all global deaths. As seen below, lung cancer is by far the number one cancer killer.
A number of factors may increase your risk of lung cancer. Some risk factors can be controlled, for instance, by quitting smoking. And other factors can't be controlled, such as your family history.
Risk factors for lung cancer include:
- Smoking. Your risk of lung cancer increases with the number of cigarettes you smoke each day and the number of years you have smoked. Quitting at any age can significantly lower your risk of developing lung cancer.
- Exposure to secondhand smoke. Even if you don't smoke, your risk of lung cancer increases if you're exposed to secondhand smoke.
- Exposure to radon gas. Radon is produced by the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water that eventually becomes part of the air you breathe. Unsafe levels of radon can accumulate in any building, including homes.
- Exposure to asbestos and other carcinogens. Workplace exposure to asbestos and other substances known to cause cancer — such as arsenic, chromium and nickel — also can increase your risk of developing lung cancer, especially if you're a smoker.
- Family history of lung cancer. People with a parent, sibling or child with lung cancer have an increased risk of the disease.