Treatment and long-term outcomes depend on the type of cancer, the stage (degree of spread), and the person's overall health, measured by performance status. Common treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. NSCLC is sometimes treated with surgery, whereas SCLC usually responds better to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Overall, 16.8% of people in the United States diagnosed with lung cancer survive five years after the diagnosis, while outcomes on average are worse in the developing world. Worldwide, lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer-related death in men and women, and was responsible for 1.56 million deaths annually, as of 2012.
Many of the symptoms of lung cancer (poor appetite, weight loss, fever, fatigue) are not specific. In many people, the cancer has already spread beyond the original site by the time they have symptoms and seek medical attention. Symptoms that suggest the presence of metastatic disease include weight loss, bone pain and neurological symptoms (headaches, fainting, convulsions, or limb weakness). Common sites of spread include the brain, bone, adrenal glands, opposite lung, liver, pericardium, and kidneys. About 10% of people with lung cancer do not have symptoms at diagnosis; these cancers are incidentally found on routine chest radiography.
Graph showing how a general increase in sales of tobacco products in the USA in the first four decades of the 20th century (cigarettes per person per year) led to a corresponding rapid increase in the rate of lung cancer during the 1930s, '40s and '50s (lung cancer deaths per 100,000 male population per year)
Cancer develops following genetic damage to DNA and epigenetic changes. These changes affect the normal functions of the cell, including cell proliferation, programmed cell death (apoptosis) and DNA repair. As more damage accumulates, the risk of cancer increases.
Cross section of a human lung: The white area in the upper lobe is cancer; the black areas are discoloration due to smoking.
Passive smoking—the inhalation of smoke from another's smoking—is a cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers. A passive smoker can be defined as someone living or working with a smoker. Studies from the US, Europe and the UK have consistently shown a significantly increased risk among those exposed to passive smoke. Those who live with someone who smokes have a 20–30% increase in risk while those who work in an environment with second hand smoke have a 16–19% increase in risk. Investigations of sidestream smoke suggest it is more dangerous than direct smoke. Passive smoking causes about 3,400 deaths from lung cancer each year in the USA.
Smoking marijuana is also a risk factor for lung cancer. Marijuana smoke contains many of the same carcinogens as that of tobacco smoke.
Radon is a colourless and odorless gas generated by the breakdown of radioactive radium, which in turn is the decay product of uranium, found in the Earth's crust. The radiation decay products ionize genetic material, causing mutations that sometimes turn cancerous. Radon is the second-most common cause of lung cancer in the USA, causing about 21,000 deaths each year. The risk increases 8–16% for every 100 Bq/m³ increase in the radon concentration. Radon gas levels vary by locality and the composition of the underlying soil and rocks. About one in 15 homes in the US has radon levels above the recommended guideline of 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/l) (148 Bq/m³).
Asbestos can cause a variety of lung diseases, including lung cancer. Tobacco smoking and asbestos have a synergistic effect on the formation of lung cancer. In smokers who work with asbestos, the risk of lung cancer is increased 45-fold compared to the general population. Asbestos can also cause cancer of the pleura, called mesothelioma (which is different from lung cancer).
Outdoor air pollution has a small effect on increasing the risk of lung cancer. Fine particulates (PM2.5) and sulfate aerosols, which may be released in traffic exhaust fumes, are associated with slightly increased risk. For nitrogen dioxide, an incremental increase of 10 parts per billion increases the risk of lung cancer by 14%. Outdoor air pollution is estimated to account for 1–2% of lung cancers.
Tentative evidence supports an increased risk of lung cancer from indoor air pollution related to the burning of wood, charcoal, dung or crop residue for cooking and heating. Women who are exposed to indoor coal smoke have about twice the risk and a number of the by-products of burning biomass are known or suspected carcinogens. This risk affects about 2.4 billion people globally, and is believed to account for 1.5% of lung cancer deaths.
Numerous other substances, occupations, and environmental exposures have been linked to lung cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) states there is "sufficient evidence" to show the following are carcinogenic in the lungs:
Some metals (aluminum production, cadmium and cadmium compounds, chromium(VI) compounds, beryllium and beryllium compounds, iron and steel founding, nickel compounds, arsenic and inorganic arsenic compounds, underground hematite mining)
Some products of combustion (incomplete combustion, coal (indoor emissions from household coal burning), coal gasification, coal-tar pitch, coke production, soot, diesel engine exhaust)
Similar to many other cancers, lung cancer is initiated by activation of oncogenes or inactivation of tumor suppressor genes. Carcinogens cause mutations in these genes which induce the development of cancer.
Nearly 40% of lung cancers are adenocarcinoma, which usually originates in peripheral lung tissue. Although most cases of adenocarcinoma are associated with smoking, adenocarcinoma is also the most common form of lung cancer among people who have smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lifetimes ("never-smokers"). A subtype of adenocarcinoma, the bronchioloalveolar carcinoma, is more common in female never-smokers, and may have a better long term survival.
Squamous-cell carcinoma accounts for about 30% of lung cancers. They typically occur close to large airways. A hollow cavity and associated cell death are commonly found at the centre of the tumour. About 9% of lung cancers are large-cell carcinoma. These are so named because the cancer cells are large, with excess cytoplasm, large nuclei and conspicuous nucleoli.
Small-cell lung carcinoma
Small-cell lung carcinoma (microscopic view of a core needle biopsy)
In small-cell lung carcinoma (SCLC), the cells contain dense neurosecretory granules (vesicles containing neuroendocrinehormones), which give this tumor an endocrine/paraneoplastic syndrome association. Most cases arise in the larger airways (primary and secondary bronchi). These cancers grow quickly and spread early in the course of the disease. Sixty to seventy percent have metastatic disease at presentation. This type of lung cancer is strongly associated with smoking.
Four main histological subtypes are recognised, although some cancers may contain a combination of different subtypes. Rare subtypes include glandular tumors, carcinoid tumors, and undifferentiated carcinomas.
The lung is a common place for the spread of tumours from other parts of the body. Secondary cancers are classified by the site of origin; e.g., breast cancer that has spread to the lung is called metastatic breast cancer. Metastases often have a characteristic round appearance on chest radiograph.
Primary lung cancers themselves most commonly metastasize to the brain, bones, liver and adrenal glands.Immunostaining of a biopsy is often helpful to determine the original source.
Tumor less than 2 cm distal to the carina, but not involving the carina
Atelectasis/obstructive pneumonitis of the whole lung
Separate tumor nodule in the same lobe
Invasion of the mediastinum, heart, great vessels, trachea, carina, recurrent laryngeal nerve, esophagus, or vertebra
Separate tumor nodule in a different lobe of the same lung
N: Lymph nodes
Regional lymph nodes cannot be assessed
No regional lymph node metastasis
Metastasis to ipsilateral peribronchial and/or hilar lymph nodes
Metastasis to ipsilateral mediastinal and/or subcarinal lymph nodes
Metastasis to scalene or supraclavicular lymph nodes
Metastasis to contralateral hilar or mediastinal lymph nodes
Distant metastasis cannot be assessed
No distant metastasis
Separate tumor nodule in the other lung
Tumor with pleural nodules
Malignant pleural or pericardial effusion
Using the TNM descriptors, a group is assigned, ranging from occult cancer, through stages 0, IA (one-A), IB, IIA, IIB, IIIA, IIIB and IV (four). This stage group assists with the choice of treatment and estimation of prognosis.
Stage group according to TNM classification in lung cancer
T1a–T1b N0 M0
T2a N0 M0
T1a–T2a N1 M0
T2b N0 M0
T2b N1 M0
T3 N0 M0
T1a–T3 N2 M0
T3 N1 M0
T4 N0–N1 M0
T4 N2 M0
Small-cell lung carcinoma (SCLC) has traditionally been classified as "limited stage" (confined to one half of the chest and within the scope of a single tolerable radiotherapy field) or "extensive stage" (more widespread disease). However, the TNM classification and grouping are useful in estimating prognosis.
For both NSCLC and SCLC, the two general types of staging evaluations are clinical staging and surgical staging. Clinical staging is performed prior to definitive surgery. It is based on the results of imaging studies (such as CT scans and PET scans) and biopsy results. Surgical staging is evaluated either during or after the operation, and is based on the combined results of surgical and clinical findings, including surgical sampling of thoracic lymph nodes.
Stage IA and IB lung cancer
Stage IIA lung cancer
Stage IIB lung cancer
Stage IIB lung cancer
Stage IIIA lung cancer
Stage IIIA lung cancer
Stage IIIA lung cancer
Stage IIIB lung cancer
Stage IIIB lung cancer
Stage IV lung cancer
Smoking prevention and smoking cessation are effective ways of preventing the development of lung cancer.
While in most countries industrial and domestic carcinogens have been identified and banned, tobacco smoking is still widespread. Eliminating tobacco smoking is a primary goal in the prevention of lung cancer, and smoking cessation is an important preventive tool in this process.
Policy interventions to decrease passive smoking in public areas such as restaurants and workplaces have become more common in many Western countries.Bhutan has had a complete smoking ban since 2005 while India introduced a ban on smoking in public in October 2008. The World Health Organization has called for governments to institute a total ban on tobacco advertising to prevent young people from taking up smoking. They assess that such bans have reduced tobacco consumption by 16% where instituted.
Cancer screening uses medical tests to detect disease in large groups of people with no symptoms. For individuals with high risk of developing lung cancer, computed tomography (CT) screening can detect cancer and give a person options to respond to it in a way that prolongs life. This form of screening reduces the chance of death from lung cancer by an absolute amount of 0.3% (relative amount of 20%). High risk people are those age 55-74 who have smoked a pack of cigarettes daily for 30 years including time within the past 15 years.
CT screening is associated with a high rate of falsely positive tests which may result in unneeded treatment. For each true positive scan there are about 19 falsely positives scans. Other concerns include radiation exposure and the cost of testing along with follow up. Research has not found two other available tests - sputumcytology or chest radiograph (CXR) screening tests — to have any benefit.
The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends yearly screening using low-dose computed tomography in those who have a total smoking history of 30 pack-years and are between 55 to 80 years old until a person has not been smoking for more than 15 years. Screening should not be done in those with other health problems that would make treatment of lung cancer if found not an option. The English National Health Service was in 2014 re-examining the evidence for screening.
Other prevention strategies
The long-term use of supplemental vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D or vitamin E does not reduce the risk of lung cancer. Some studies suggest that people who eat diets with a higher proportion of vegetables and fruit tend to have a lower risk, but this may be due to confounding—with the lower risk actually due to the association of a high fruit/vegetables diet with less smoking. More rigorous studies have not demonstrated a clear association between diet and lung cancer risk.
If investigations confirm NSCLC, the stage is assessed to determine whether the disease is localized and amenable to surgery or if it has spread to the point where it cannot be cured surgically. CT scan and positron emission tomography are used for this determination. If mediastinal lymph node involvement is suspected, mediastinoscopy may be used to sample the nodes and assist staging.Blood tests and pulmonary function testing are used to assess whether a person is well enough for surgery. If pulmonary function tests reveal poor respiratory reserve, surgery may not be a possibility.
In most cases of early-stage NSCLC, removal of a lobe of lung (lobectomy) is the surgical treatment of choice. In people who are unfit for a full lobectomy, a smaller sublobar excision (wedge resection) may be performed. However, wedge resection has a higher risk of recurrence than lobectomy. Radioactive iodinebrachytherapy at the margins of wedge excision may reduce the risk of recurrence. Rarely, removal of a whole lung (pneumonectomy) is performed.Video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) and VATS lobectomy use a minimally invasive approach to lung cancer surgery. VATS lobectomy is equally effective compared to conventional open lobectomy, with less postoperative illness.
In SCLC, chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy is typically used. However the role of surgery in SCLC is being reconsidered. Surgery might improve outcomes when added to chemotherapy and radiation in early stage SCLC.
Radiotherapy is often given together with chemotherapy, and may be used with curative intent in people with NSCLC who are not eligible for surgery. This form of high-intensity radiotherapy is called radical radiotherapy. A refinement of this technique is continuous hyperfractionated accelerated radiotherapy (CHART), in which a high dose of radiotherapy is given in a short time period. Postoperative thoracic radiotherapy generally should not be used after curative intent surgery for NSCLC. Some people with mediastinal N2 lymph node involvement might benefit from post-operative radiotherapy.
For potentially curable SCLC cases, chest radiotherapy is often recommended in addition to chemotherapy.
Internal radiotherapy for lung cancer given via the airway.
If cancer growth blocks a short section of bronchus, brachytherapy (localized radiotherapy) may be given directly inside the airway to open the passage. Compared to external beam radiotherapy, brachytherapy allows a reduction in treatment time and reduced radiation exposure to healthcare staff.
Prophylactic cranial irradiation (PCI) is a type of radiotherapy to the brain, used to reduce the risk of metastasis. PCI is most useful in SCLC. In limited-stage disease, PCI increases three-year survival from 15% to 20%; in extensive disease, one-year survival increases from 13% to 27%.
Recent improvements in targeting and imaging have led to the development of stereotactic radiation in the treatment of early-stage lung cancer. In this form of radiotherapy, high doses are delivered over a sessions using stereotactic targeting techniques. Its use is primarily in patients who are not surgical candidates due to medical comorbidities.
For both NSCLC and SCLC patients, smaller doses of radiation to the chest may be used for symptom control (palliative radiotherapy).
Adjuvant chemotherapy refers to the use of chemotherapy after apparently curative surgery to improve the outcome. In NSCLC, samples are taken of nearby lymph nodes during surgery to assist staging. If stage II or III disease is confirmed, adjuvant chemotherapy improves survival by 5% at five years. The combination of vinorelbine and cisplatin is more effective than older regimens. Adjuvant chemotherapy for people with stage IB cancer is controversial, as clinical trials have not clearly demonstrated a survival benefit.Chemotherapy before surgery in NSCLC that can be removed surgically also appears to improve outcomes.
Chemotherapy may be combined with palliative care in the treatment of the NSCLC. In advanced cases, appropriate chemotherapy improves average survival over supportive care alone, as well as improving quality of life. With adequate physical fitness maintaining chemotherapy during lung cancer palliation offers 1.5 to 3 months of prolongation of survival, symptomatic relief, and an improvement in quality of life, with better results seen with modern agents. The NSCLC Meta-Analyses Collaborative Group recommends if the recipient wants and can tolerate treatment, then chemotherapy should be considered in advanced NSCLC.
Palliative care when added to usual cancer care benefits people even when they are still receiving chemotherapy. These approaches allow additional discussion of treatment options and provide opportunities to arrive at well-considered decisions. Palliative care may avoid unhelpful but expensive care not only at the end of life, but also throughout the course of the illness. For individuals who have more advanced disease, hospice care may also be appropriate.
Outcomes in lung cancer according to clinical stage
Five-year survival (%)
Non-small-cell lung carcinoma
Small-cell lung carcinoma
Of all people with lung cancer in the US, 16.8% survive for at least five years after diagnosis. In England, between 2005 and 2009, overall five-year survival for lung cancer was less than 10%. Outcomes are generally worse in the developing world. Stage is often advanced at the time of diagnosis. At presentation, 30–40% of cases of NSCLC are stage IV, and 60% of SCLC are stage IV. Survival for lung cancer falls as the stage at diagnosis becomes more advanced: the English data suggest that around 70% of patients survive at least a year when diagnosed at the earliest stage, but this falls to just 14% for those diagnosed with the most advanced disease.
For NSCLC, the best prognosis is achieved with complete surgical resection of stage IA disease, with up to 70% five-year survival. For SCLC, the overall five-year survival is about 5%. People with extensive-stage SCLC have an average five-year survival rate of less than 1%. The average survival time for limited-stage disease is 20 months, with a five-year survival rate of 20%.
According to data provided by the National Cancer Institute, the median age at diagnosis of lung cancer in the United States is 70 years, and the median age at death is 72 years. In the US, people with medical insurance are more likely to have a better outcome.
Lung cancer, incidence, mortality and survival, England 1971–2011
Worldwide, lung cancer is the most common cancer among men in terms of both incidence and mortality, and among women has the third highest incidence, and is second after breast cancer in mortality. In 2012, there were 1.82 million new cases globally, and 1.56 million deaths due to lung cancer, representing 19.4% of all deaths from cancer. The highest rates are in North America, Europe and East Asia, with over a third of new cases in 2012 in China. Rates in Africa and South Asia are much lower.
The population segment most likely to develop lung cancer is people aged over 50 who have a history of smoking. In contrast to the mortality rate in men, which began declining more than 20 years ago, women's lung cancer mortality rates have been rising over the last decades, and are just recently beginning to stabilize. In the USA, the lifetime risk of developing lung cancer is 8% in men and 6% in women.
For every 3–4 million cigarettes smoked, one lung cancer death occurs. The influence of "Big Tobacco" plays a significant role in the smoking culture. Young nonsmokers who see tobacco advertisements are more likely to take up smoking. The role of passive smoking is increasingly being recognized as a risk factor for lung cancer, leading to policy interventions to decrease undesired exposure of nonsmokers to others' tobacco smoke. Emissions from automobiles, factories, and power plants also pose potential risks.
Eastern Europe has the highest lung cancer mortality among men, while northern Europe and the US have the highest mortality among women. In the United States, black men and women have a higher incidence. Lung cancer rates are currently lower in developing countries. With increased smoking in developing countries, the rates are expected to increase in the next few years, notably in China and India.
Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the UK (around 43,500 people were diagnosed with the disease in 2011), and it is the most common cause of cancer death (around 35,400 people died in 2012).
From the 1960s, the rates of lung adenocarcinoma started to rise relative to other types of lung cancer. This is partly due to the introduction of filter cigarettes. The use of filters removes larger particles from tobacco smoke, thus reducing deposition in larger airways. However, the smoker has to inhale more deeply to receive the same amount of nicotine, increasing particle deposition in small airways where adenocarcinoma tends to arise. The incidence of lung adenocarcinoma continues to rise.
Lung cancer was uncommon before the advent of cigarette smoking; it was not even recognized as a distinct disease until 1761. Different aspects of lung cancer were described further in 1810. Malignant lung tumors made up only 1% of all cancers seen at autopsy in 1878, but had risen to 10–15% by the early 1900s. Case reports in the medical literature numbered only 374 worldwide in 1912, but a review of autopsies showed the incidence of lung cancer had increased from 0.3% in 1852 to 5.66% in 1952. In Germany in 1929, physician Fritz Lickint recognized the link between smoking and lung cancer, which led to an aggressive antismoking campaign. The British Doctors' Study, published in the 1950s, was the first solid epidemiological evidence of the link between lung cancer and smoking. As a result, in 1964 the Surgeon General of the United States recommended smokers should stop smoking.
The connection with radon gas was first recognized among miners in the Ore Mountains near Schneeberg, Saxony. Silver has been mined there since 1470, and these mines are rich in uranium, with its accompanying radium and radon gas. Miners developed a disproportionate amount of lung disease, eventually recognized as lung cancer in the 1870s. Despite this discovery, mining continued into the 1950s, due to the USSR's demand for uranium. Radon was confirmed as a cause of lung cancer in the 1960s.
The first successful pneumonectomy for lung cancer was performed in 1933. Palliative radiotherapy has been used since the 1940s. Radical radiotherapy, initially used in the 1950s, was an attempt to use larger radiation doses in patients with relatively early-stage lung cancer, but who were otherwise unfit for surgery. In 1997, continuous hyperfractionated accelerated radiotherapy was seen as an improvement over conventional radical radiotherapy. With small-cell lung carcinoma, initial attempts in the 1960s at surgical resection and radical radiotherapy were unsuccessful. In the 1970s, successful chemotherapy regimens were developed.
Current research directions for lung cancer treatment include immunotherapy, which encourages the body's immune system to attack the tumour cells, epigenetics, and new combinations of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, both on their own and together. Many of these new treatments work through immune checkpoint blockade, disrupting cancer's ability to evade the immune system.
Other immunotherapy treatments interfere with the binding of programmed cell death 1 (PD-1) protein with its ligandPD-1 ligand 1 (PD-L1). Signaling through PD-1 inactivates T cells. Some cancer cells appear to exploit this by expressing PD-L1 in order to switch off T cells that might recognise them as a threat. Monoclonal antibodies targeting both PD-1 and PD-L1, such as pembrolizumab and nivolumab are currently in clinical trials for treatment for lung cancer.
The TRACERx project is looking at how NSCLC develops and evolves, and how these tumours become resistant to treatment. The project will look at tumour samples from 850 NSCLC patients at various stages including diagnosis, after first treatment, post-treatment, and relapse. By studying samples at different points of tumour development, the researchers hope to identify the changes that drive tumour growth and resistance to treatment. The results of this project will help scientists and doctors gain a better understanding of NSCLC and potentially lead to the development of new treatments against the disease.
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