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Lung cancer, which originates in the lungs, can also spread to other parts of the body, such as distant bones, the liver, adrenal glands, or the brain. It may be first discovered in a distant location, but is still called lung cancer if there is evidence it started there.
Once lung cancer begins to cause symptoms, it is usually visible on an X-ray. Occasionally, lung cancer that has not yet begun to cause symptoms is spotted on a chest X-ray taken for another purpose. A CT scan of the chest may be ordered for a more detailed exam.
Though exams of mucus or lung fluid may reveal fully developed cancer cells, diagnosis of lung cancer is usually confirmed through a lung biopsy. With the patient lightly anesthetized, the doctor guides a thin, lighted tube through the nose and down the air passages to the site of the tumor, where a tiny tissue sample can be removed. This is called a bronchoscopy and the scope is called a bronchoscope. This is useful for tumors near the center of the lung.
If the biopsy confirms lung cancer, other tests will determine the type of cancer and how far it has spread. Nearby lymph nodes can be tested for cancer cells with a procedure called a mediastinoscopy, while imaging techniques such as CT scans, PET scans, bone scans, and either an MRI or a CT scan of the brain can detect cancer elsewhere in the body.
If fluid is present in the lining of the lung, removal of the fluid with a needle (called a thoracentesis) may help diagnose cancer as well as improve breathing symptoms. If the fluid tests negative for cancer cells -- which occurs about 60% of the time -- then a procedure known as a video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (or VATS) may be performed to examine the lining of the lung for tumors and to perform a biopsy.
Because saliva, mucus, and chest X-rays have not proved particularly effective in detecting small tumors characteristic of early lung cancer, annual chest X-rays for lung cancer screening are not recommended.
What causes lung cancer?
Major Cause: Smoking
The incidence of lung cancer is strongly correlated with cigarette smoking, with about 90% of lung cancers arising as a result of tobacco use. The risk of lung cancer increases with the number of cigarettes smoked over time; doctors refer to this risk in terms of pack-years of smoking history (the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day multiplied by the number of years smoked).
For example, a person who has smoked two packs of cigarettes per day for 10 years has a 20 pack-year smoking history. While the risk of lung cancer is increased with even a 10 pack-year smoking history, those with 30 pack-year histories or more are considered to have the greatest risk for the development of lung cancer. Among those who smoke two or more packs of cigarettes per day, one in seven will die of lung cancer. But even though the risk is higher the more you smoke, there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke.
Pipe and cigar smoking can also cause lung cancer, although the risk is not as high as with cigarettes. While someone who smokes one pack of cigarettes per day has a risk for the development of lung cancer that is 25 times higher than a nonsmoker, pipe and cigar smokers have a risk of lung cancer that is about five times that of a nonsmoker.
Tobacco smoke contains over 4,000 chemical compounds, many of which have been shown to be cancer-causing, or carcinogenic. The two primary carcinogens in tobacco smoke are chemicals known as nitrosamines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The risk of developing lung cancer decreases each year following smoking cessation as normal cells grow and replace damaged cells in the lung. In former smokers, the risk of developing lung cancer begins to approach that of a nonsmoker about 15 years after cessation of smoking.
Passive smoking, or the inhalation of tobacco smoke from other smokers sharing living or working quarters, is also an established risk factor for the development of lung cancer. Research has shown that nonsmokers who reside with a smoker have a 24% increase in risk for developing lung cancer when compared with other nonsmokers. An estimated 3,000 lung cancer deaths occur each year in the U.S. that are attributable to passive smoking.