Lung Cancer: The Basics You Need to Know

MUSC Health
November 18, 2020
Employee looking at an x ray.

Nichole T. Tanner, MD, MSCR
Associate Professor of Medicine
Co-Director, Lung Cancer Screening Program
Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, Allergy and Sleep Medicine
Medical University of South Carolina

Nichole Tanner, M.D., MSCR 
Dr. Nichole Tanner

Who’s at risk of getting lung cancer, and what are the symptoms? How is it diagnosed? What treatments are there? Addressing these concerns and more is Dr. Nichole Tanner, a lung cancer pulmonologist and co-director of the MUSC Health Hollings Cancer Center Lung Cancer Screening Program. Her research and clinical interests focus on many aspects of lung cancer screening, including implementation, disparities, adherence, shared decision making and tobacco treatment. Other focuses of research include pulmonary nodule evaluation and the staging and diagnosis of lung cancer.

How common is lung cancer?

Lung cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in the United States and in the world.

What is the prognosis of lung cancer — is it deadly?

Each year in the U.S., lung cancer kills more Americans than breast, prostate and colon cancer combined. This is because people don't usually develop symptoms until the cancer has spread and is more difficult to treat and cure.

What are the symptoms of lung cancer?

As above, lung cancer does not usually cause symptoms until it has spread. These symptoms may include weight loss and fatigue, shortness of breath, coughing up blood and new hoarseness or loss of voice.

What are the causes and risk factors of lung cancer?

The main cause of lung cancer is current or former cigarette use. Other risk factors may include a family history of cancer, underlying lung disease, such as emphysema or pulmonary fibrosis, prior radiation treatment to the chest and exposures, including asbestos, radon and secondhand smoke.

How is lung cancer diagnosed?

Lung cancer is usually first suspected on an imaging study of the chest, such as a chest X-ray or CT scan, that is done by a medical professional when someone has symptoms of lung cancer or can be found incidentally when someone has an imaging study done for another reason. To confirm a lung cancer diagnosis, a sample of tissue (also called a biopsy) is needed from either the suspicious area in the lung or other areas where the images suggest the cancer may have spread. A biopsy of the lung can be done with the assistance of a CT scan, through a bronchoscopy (an outpatient procedure in which a scope with a camera and a light is used to see inside the airways of the lung) or surgery.

Are there different types of lung cancer, and are some more serious than others?

There are different types of lung cancer that are determined by what is seen on special tests done on the biopsy specimens. Some lung cancers are more aggressive than others.

What are the treatment options for lung cancer, how effective are treatments and can it be cured?

Treatment for lung cancer depends on the stage of the lung cancer. The doctors will determine the stage of the lung cancer through additional scans and biopsies, if needed. Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapies, immunotherapies and combinations of all of these.

The best chance for cure is to find lung cancer in its earlier stages when it has yet to spread and the person is eligible for surgery to cure. Many of the combinations of treatments available for more advanced disease are targeted to individual mutations that might be found in a person's tumor. These targeted therapies are part of precision oncology and have improved outcomes for lung cancer. 

Why go to MUSC Health Hollings Cancer Center for lung cancer care?

At the MUSC Health Hollings Cancer Center, we have a comprehensive lung cancer program focused on the entire spectrum of lung cancer diagnostics, treatment and care. From early detection through a comprehensive lung cancer screening program to the most advanced diagnostic technology and treatment algorithms, our group works together across disciplines to deliver the most state-of-the-art lung cancer care. As a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, the Hollings Cancer Center supports our multidisciplinary group that includes members from pulmonary medicine, thoracic surgery, medical oncology, radiation oncology, radiology and tobacco treatment. We deliver guideline-consistent care and have access to the latest research trials.

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Keywords: Cancer