Lung Cancer: Frequently Asked Questions

Lung cancer is a relatively common type of cancer. According to the LUNGevity Foundation, about one in 16 people in the US will receive a lung cancer diagnosis during their lifetime¹.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about lung cancer that patients, friends, and loved ones often have.

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How is lung cancer diagnosed?

To determine whether or not you have lung cancer, your doctor will look through your medical history, assess your symptoms, and perform physical exams. 

During this process, you'll need to undergo imaging tests before the doctor can make a final determination as to your diagnosis. These imaging tests may include:

  • Computed tomography scans (CAT)

  • Bone scans

  • Positron emission tomography scans (PET)

Additionally, you might need to undergo specific procedures to study your lung tissue or the fluid around the lungs. Procedures can include:

  • Bronchoscopy biopsy: A small sample of lung tissue is taken via a scope passed into your lung.

  • Sputum cytology: You’ll be asked to cough up a sputum sample, which goes to a lab for testing.

  • Endoscopic esophageal ultrasound: A thin tube passes into the digestive tract through your mouth. A tiny ultrasound device on the tube creates images of the surrounding tissue.

  • Open biopsy: A small piece of lung tissue is surgically removed for testing.

Before your doctor can give you any advice as to what treatments would work best for you, they must first have all the necessary information to give you an accurate lung cancer diagnosis.

Can lung cancer be inherited?

Lung cancer is usually not related to an inherited genetic trait. Instead, most lung cancers are caused by mutations in particular lung cells. Learn more about what causes lung cancer.

However, when you have a family history of lung cancer, your risk of developing it increases.

Can you screen for lung cancer?

Yes, just like for other cancers, you can screen for lung cancer symptoms before they progress into a full-blown, terminal illness. 

The procedure is called low-dose computed tomography. It doesn't take long to complete, and it’s painless.

If you're between the ages of 50 and 80 years old, and you're currently smoking or have quit smoking in the last 15 years and have a significant smoking history, experts recommend that you undergo periodic lung cancer screening.

What does lung cancer feel like?

The most common symptom of lung cancer is a chronic, persistent cough that doesn't go away or gets worse over time. Breathlessness can be another common symptom.

You may also cough up blood or reddish phlegm and experience chest pain while performing ordinary activities like deep breathing, light exercise, or even laughing.

The difficulty with lung cancer is that many other illnesses also present with these symptoms, so you may not know that lung cancer is causing them without proper screening and diagnosis.

Can lung cancer spread to other vital organs?

Unfortunately, lung cancer can spread to your kidneys, brain, liver, or other parts of the body. Receiving an accurate diagnosis as soon as possible is vital so that your doctors can treat the illness quickly before it spreads.

How is lung cancer treated?

Depending on the type of lung cancer you have, your treatment options include:

  • Chemotherapy

  • Radiation therapy

  • Surgery

  • Interventional pulmonology

  • Targeted therapy

Your doctors will determine which course of treatment will work best for you. It will likely involve a combination of therapies.

Can surgery alone cure lung cancer?

If your doctor can detect lung cancer early enough, surgery alone may cure the illness, which is why lung cancer screening is so important.

Does chemotherapy work better than radiation therapy?

When treating lung cancer, a mix of therapies has been found to give the best chance of recovery. Everybody reacts differently to chemotherapy and radiation therapy, so you may try one, but ultimately use the other more depending on your side effects.

Is combining chemotherapy and radiation the best way to treat lung cancer?

While it depends on the course of treatment your physician decides is right for you, chemotherapy and radiation therapy often go hand-in-hand because they work well together. It is simply a balancing act of finding the best course of treatment for the individual.

Can lung cancer be cured?

If the disease is detected early enough before it has progressed too far, certain types of lung cancer can be treated with a success rate as high as 80 to 90%. 

It is important to detect lung cancer as early as possible because that's when the disease is the most treatable.

How long can you live with lung cancer?

This depends on the type of lung cancer you have and how long the disease has been advancing. Generally speaking, around one in five people with lung cancer live five or more years beyond their diagnosis. However, in some severe cases, life expectancy can be as short as three to six months.

How many people recover from lung cancer each year?

The five-year survival rate for lung cancer is currently at 18%, but it can be as high as 56% if the illness hasn't spread to other parts of the body.

The unfortunate reality is that about half of those diagnosed with lung cancer eventually succumb to the disease within a year of receiving their diagnosis.

Does smoking really cause lung cancer?

Yes. The research is clear: the number one risk factor for developing lung cancer is smoking cigarettes.

Statistically speaking, while smoking is not the only cause, as non-smokers can also get lung cancer, about 80 to 90% of those who die of terminal lung cancer have smoked cigarettes at some point. 

Why does smoking nicotine cause lung cancer?

There are thousands of chemicals in cigarette smoke, and many of them are known to cause cancer. So, if you are a long-time smoker, you've been exposed to these harmful chemicals for an extended period.

However, you don't have to be a smoker yourself to develop lung cancer. There have been many cases where a non-smoker living with a smoker has developed lung cancer from the effects of inhaling secondhand smoke.

Researchers estimate that about 2.5 million people have passed away due to second-hand smoke exposure² over the last 50 years.

Can non-smokers develop lung cancer too?

Yes. Non-smokers can develop lung cancer as well, but it's not as likely as developing lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking. Numbers-wise, anywhere between 10-20% of all lung cancer cases in the United States occur in non-smokers.

Can vaping cause lung cancer?

While there's no direct evidence that vaping causes lung cancer, some research suggests that vaping may also increase the risk of lung cancer. This is because vaping liquid often includes concentrated nicotine or other contaminants that you inhale. The loosely regulated vaping market could be a contributor to rising cases among younger people.

Can young people develop lung cancer?

While it is very rare, young people can develop lung cancer. Statistically speaking, less than 1.5% of all lung cancer diagnoses are in young adults and children.

Typically, most people who develop lung cancer get it between 35 and 45 after many years of smoking cigarettes or inhaling toxic chemicals.

Can inhaling chemicals cause lung cancer?

Yes. Research shows that you can develop lung cancer from air pollution produced by coal-fired power plants or vehicle exhaust fumes. 

Many of the chemicals used in industrial facilities are known carcinogens. Because of this, employers have a legal obligation to put the proper safeguards in place to minimize your risk of developing cancer.

The chemicals and toxic substances that are known to cause lung cancer include:

  • Arsenic

  • Asbestos

  • Chromium

  • Cadmium

  • Nickel

Exposure to any one of these can lead to lung cancer, even many years after exposure.

Can smoking cannabis cause lung cancer?

The medical community is still undecided about whether or not smoking cannabis causes lung cancer as readily as smoking cigarettes³. Studies have been conducted, but with conflicting results, and therefore further research is needed to understand the possible risks of smoking cannabis.

Research shows that marijuana smoke contains many of the same chemicals found in cigarette smoke, however, how you ingest cannabis is usually different from the way you smoke a cigarette. 

So, it's unclear whether or not cannabis smoking itself increases the risk of lung cancer or if it's the way it’s ingested that increases the risk.

Since there are no quality control mechanisms in the cannabis industry like there are for the nicotine industry, there's a significant chance that cannabis users unknowingly ingest contaminants when they believe they're smoking a safe product. Ultimately, it's fair to say that there's a correlation between smoking cannabis and lung cancer, but there is still not enough research to put smoking marijuana in the same risk category as nicotine.

How much does it cost to treat lung cancer?

The cost of treating lung cancer varies widely depending on a range of factors. It mainly depends on how far the disease has progressed and whether or not you have health insurance. It also may depend on the specific treatments that your doctor recommends for your particular type of lung cancer.

Generally speaking, lung cancer is easier to treat in the earlier stages than in the late and terminal phases.

You may also require ongoing treatment after completing a treatment regimen, which would add additional costs over the long run. For instance, you could need prescriptions to boost your immune system after recovering from lung cancer, but it depends on how well you respond to treatment. 

If you don't have health insurance, can you still receive lung cancer treatments?

Yes, if you have lung cancer but you don't have health insurance in place, you can still receive treatment through Medicare and Medicaid. You can also purchase health insurance through the Federal Government's online marketplace and receive subsidized coverage.

A health insurance company can't deny you coverage for a pre-existing condition, including illnesses like cancer. Learn more about managing the costs of lung cancer treatment.

  1. Lung Cancer Statistics | The LUNGevity Foundation

  2. Secondhand Smoke Kills | New York State Department of Health

  3. Marijuana and Your Risk of Lung Cancer | WebMD

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