In this Health Hub article, we explore the signs and symptoms, types, survival rates and stages of lung cancer.
Lung cancer is the fourth most common cancer in Ireland with approximately 2,300 people diagnosed each year. It is now more common in women than men, and nine out of ten lung cancers are directly related to smoking.
Lung Cancer Signs & Symptoms
There are usually no symptoms in the early stages of lung cancer. As the condition progresses the symptoms then develop. The main symptoms are:
- Difficulty breathing
- A persistent cough that doesn’t go away after 2-3 weeks
- Changes to a long-term cough
- Repeated persistent chest infections
- Wheezing and/or breathlessness
- Pain when coughing or breathing
- Coughing up bloody phlegm
- Hoarse voice
- Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite
- Lack of energy or unexplained tiredness
If you experience any of these symptoms you should have them investigated by your GP. It should be stressed, however, that many of these symptoms may occur in lung infections such as pneumonia and be unrelated to cancer.
Types of Lung Cancer
Adenocarcinoma is the most common form of lung cancer and is a type of Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC). It tends to grow in the outer part of the lungs and may be there for some time before symptoms appear. However, adenocarcinoma tends to grow more slowly than other types of lung cancer and is more likely to be found before it has spread, although this varies from patient to patient.
Small Cell Lung Cancer (SCLC) is also referred to as ‘oat cell cancer’ and accounts for 10-15% of lung cancers. SCLC tends to spread very early and symptoms don’t usually appear until the disease is at an advanced stage making it very difficult to cure.
The earlier lung cancer is detected and treated, the more successful the treatment is likely to be. Survival is affected because symptoms often don’t appear until the disease has spread through much of the lungs and possibly other parts of the body. Only 25% of people will survive for at least one year and just 12% for at least 5 years. However, survival rates can vary greatly depending on what stage the cancer is at (how far it has spread) when it is diagnosed. The lower the cancer stage the better the outlook.
Lung Cancer Stages
Diagnosis is done using a combination of chest x-ray, CT scan and bronchoscopy (using a tube inserted into the lungs to examine and take a cell sample) and these tests can usually confirm or rule out lung cancer. Further specific tests are then used for ‘staging’ the lung cancer.
NSCLC can be classified from stage 1-4.
- Stage 1- the cancer is located only in the lungs and has not spread to any lymph nodes.
- Stage 2- the cancer is in the lung and nearby lymph nodes.
- Stage 3- the cancer is found in the lung and the lymph nodes in the middle of the chest, known as locally advanced disease.
- Stage 4-
the cancerhas spread to both lungs, the fluid around the lungs, and to other parts of the body such as the brain or bones. This is the most advanced stage of lung cancer known as advanced disease.
SCLC only has two possible stages:
- Limited disease-
the cancerhas not spread beyond the lung.
- Extensive disease- the cancer has spread beyond the lung.
Treatments of Lung Cancer
Treatment depends on the type and stage of the lung cancer, and include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy.
Advice From The Pharmacist
- Be a quitter! Stopping smoking works, an ex-smoker has the same risk of developing lung cancer as a non-smoker 15 years after quitting. It is never too late to quit no matter how long you have been smoking.
- If you have any symptoms listed here bring them to the attention of your GP.
- A healthy diet that is low in saturated fat, high in fibre and includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables can help to lower risk of lung cancer, and other types of cancer, as well as heart disease.
- Take regular exercise. 30 minutes of vigorous exercise five times a week can lower the risk of developing lung cancer.
If you have been diagnosed with lung cancer make sure you keep all appointments. Follow the treatment plans given to you in terms of medication and lifestyle advice. If you need help and support ask a relative, friend or any of the healthcare team that will be looking after you.