Lung cancer - Institute for Respiratory Health

Lung cancer

What is lung cancer

Lung cancer is the fourth leading cause of death in Australia (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare).

It develops when cells become abnormal and grow out of control in one or both of a person’s lungs. It is the world’s most lethal cancer. In healthy lungs, normal lung tissue cells reproduce and develop into healthy lung tissue. With lung cancer, abnormal cells reproduce rapidly and never grow into normal lung tissue. Lumps of cancer cells form tumours which disrupt the functioning of the lung.

Lung cancer often develops slowly. It is thought that cells first become abnormal at least five years before cancer can be detected. The reasons for this delay include:

  • Most tumours grow slowly
  • The lungs are large
  • The lungs do not feel pain (pain is not common in lung cancer)
  • Some of the symptoms are similar to those of COPD, which many smokers also have.

Lung cancer symptoms

It is often diagnosed late because symptoms can be vague or there may be no symptoms experienced in the early stages of the disease. Because there are very few nerve endings in the lungs, a tumour could grow without causing pain or discomfort. When symptoms are present, they are different for every individual, but they may include:

  • A persistent cough that gets worse over time
  • Constant chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Frequent lung infections like pneumonia
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing

Some symptoms of lung cancer may not be related to the lungs. These symptoms can still be a sign of lung cancer because lung cancer usually does not cause symptoms in the earlier stages. This means that symptoms may not appear until the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Some of these symptoms may include:

  • Blood clots
  • Bone pain or fractures
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

If you experience any of the above symptoms speak to your doctor and talk to them about getting screened.

Lung cancer causes

Lung cancer occurs when cells in the lung mutate or change. A number of factors can result in the mutation. Generally, the change in the lung cells happens when people breathe in dangerous toxic substances. You might have been exposed to the toxic substance’s years ago, but you can still be at risk for lung cancer.

Smoking, particle pollution and exposure to hazardous materials, such as asbestos, arsenic and chromium can increase your risk as well.

Lung cancer treatments

Over the past decade, there has been a lot of progress in lung cancer treatments. People are generally given several treatments at one time.

Treatments can include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery.

Lung cancer screening

Lung cancer screening can help find lung cancer at an early stage when it is easier to treat. And research in America has shown that screening people who have the highest chance of developing lung cancer can prevent deaths.

Lung cancer screening involves a CT scan of the lungs. Sometimes, more tests are required. The CT scan can find lung cancer before it has spread and treatment with surgery is offered to cure it. Lung cancer screening does not prevent lung cancer but finds it at an earlier stage when there is a better chance of successful treatment.

Lung cancer research

Lung cancer research helps us understand how the disease is caused, how it develops and how it can be best treated. Lung cancer research that the Institute is involved with includes:

LungScreen WA is an exciting clinical research initiative led by respiratory physicians Dr Fraser Brims and Dr Annette McWilliams. The program aims to improve and develop ways of finding lung cancer when it is in this early stage. Through their diverse research, the LungScreen WA team collaborates with national and international research colleagues.

To register for an upcoming lung cancer screening trial please click here.

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