Understanding lung cancer

What do your lungs and a tennis court have in common? Here’s the answer: they’re about the same size. That’s right, the surface area of both your lungs is about the same size as a tennis court.1 Did you also know more people die each year of lung cancer than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined? That’s almost 25% of all cancer deaths. But, here’s some good news: the number of new cases seems to be dropping because of advances in early detection and treatment — and more people are quitting smoking. In fact, if caught early enough, some lung cancers can be cured.2

For how common and dangerous lung cancer is, you may not know much about it. Lung cancer develops when cells in the lungs grow abnormally, cluster together and form a tumor. These abnormal changes to cell DNA often happen when you breathe in or are exposed to harmful toxins (like smoking, for example). To understand how these cancers form, it’s helpful to know the different types of lung cancer.3

What are the types of lung cancer?

There are two main types of lung cancer — small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). (But, that doesn’t help us much, does it?) Let’s dive into some details.4,5

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)

This kind is more common (about 80% of cases). The 3 main subtypes of NSCLC are adenocarcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas and large cell carcinomas. These cancers typically grow and spread at a slower rate than SCLC. The following subtypes are grouped together because they often have a similar treatment and outlook.4,5

  • Adenocarcinoma: Often found in an outer area of the lung, this kind of NSCLC forms in the cells of epithelial tissues (the major tissue in glands responsible for all kinds of functions, like making mucus). This subtype is often linked to smokers, but it’s also the most common type of lung cancer in non-smokers.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: Typically found in the central part of your lungs, this cancer starts in the squamous cells that line the inside of the bronchus (main airway).
  • Large-cell carcinoma: This can develop anywhere in the lungs and usually grows faster than the two cancers listed above.

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC)

The 2 subtypes of SCLC are small cell carcinoma and mixed small cell/large cell carcinoma. Basically, these two subtypes are named based on which cells the cancer starts in. This kind of cancer is usually linked to smoking cigarettes and may often be treated with chemotherapy or radiation. And because it grows quickly, the cancer in about 70% of people with SCLC may have already spread by the time they get diagnosed. .4,5

There’s a third, less common type of lung cancer, called a carcinoid tumor. They grow slower than other types of lung cancer.

Who should I see if I’m concerned about lung cancer?

If you think you might have symptoms of lung cancer or you’re concerned about your risk level, visit your primary care provider (the doctor or provider you might see for your yearly exam). Bring a list of your symptoms, health history, concerns and questions. If you’ve had screenings done in the past, like a chest X-ray or CT scan, have those images sent to your primary clinic before your appointment. Depending on how your conversation goes, your doctor may order more tests, or refer you to a specialist, like a pulmonologist (lung expert) or oncologist (cancer expert).13

Footnotes

  1. How Your Lungs Get the Job Done lung.org, 2017.
  2. Lung Cancer Statistics cancer.org, 2021. 
  3. Learn About Lung Cancer lung.org, 2021.
  4. Lung Cancer Basics lung.org, 2021. 
  5. What is Lung Cancer? cancer.org, 2019. 
  6. Lung Cancer Early Detection cancer.org, 2021. 
  7. Lung cancer- Diagnosis and treatment mayoclinic.org, 2021. 
  8. Lung Cancer Early Detection cancer.org, 2021. 
  9. Lung cancer- Symptoms and treatment mayoclinic.org, 2021. 
  10. Lung Cancer Signs & Symptoms cancer.org, 2019. 
  11. Lung Cancer Causes & Risk Factors lung.org, 2021. 
  12. Lung Cancer Prevention cancer.org, 2019. 
  13. Lung cancer- Diagnosis and treatment mayoclinic.org, 2021.