Lung cancer

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Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the United States. About 200,000 Americans will be diagnosed with it every year, and about 160,000 will die yearly of the disease.

The term "lung cancer" actually refers to a number of different cancers that arise in the lung, but for the most part they are divided into two categories: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer.

Risk Factors

Lung cancer is one of the few cancers in which risk factors are so clearly identifiable. Between 80-90% of lung cancer deaths are due to smoking. So-called "second-hand smoke" is also a risk factor, however the size of the risk is less clear. Most studies point toward about 3000 deaths per year from cancer acquired via second-hand smoke, but this is still an area of active research.

Other important risk factors for lung cancer include asbestos exposure (especially in conjunction with cigarette smoking), radon gas, and other chemical exposures related to certain occupations.

Natural History & Detection

Lung tumor seen as a large white spot on the right lung (blue box)

Most lung cancers are detected when a patient has symptoms. About 10-25% are found incidentally when an X-ray is done for other reasons. Symptoms, when they occur, can include:

  • shortness of breath
  • chronic cough
  • bloody cough
  • unexplained weight loss
  • chest pain

Lung cancers that are diagnosed early are usually curable, but most cancers are detected only after they have grown significantly and spread, making early detection especially important.


There are many different types of lung cancer, and they are detected at different stages, therefore treatment varies. Treatment may include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination of any of these.

Results of treatment depend on many different factors.


Prevention of lung cancer is based on avoiding risk factors. Do not start smoking, and if you smoke, stop. Test your house for radon gas. Report any unusual symptoms to your doctor.

There are currently no widely accepted screening guidelines for lung cancer.

See also


  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Involuntary Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General (1986).
  4. National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Cancer Institute. Smoking and Tobacco Control Monograph 10 (1999): Health Effects of Exposure to Environmental Tobacco Smoke.