Lung cancer - everything you need to know
31st October 2022
Lung cancer affects a huge number of people every year. It caused 1.8 million deaths worldwide in 2020; the single largest number of deaths for any cancer. It was also the second most common cancer that year, with over 2.2 million new cases diagnosed. What is lung cancer? How is it caused? And how does your support drive even more new and much needed lung cancer research?
What is lung cancer?
Lung cancers are solid tumours that grow in the lower part of our airways. Tumours might form in:
- One or both lungs
- The lower windpipe (trachea)
- The two airways which connect the trachea to the left and right lungs (bronchi)
Lung cancer starts when cells in the lungs or surrounding area become damaged. The damage can affect the cell DNA. Over time these damaged cells become able to divide and grow uncontrollably, causing tumours to develop.
What types of lung cancer are there?
Primary lung cancers begin in the lung. Two main types of primary lung cancer are:
Small cell lung cancer: Around 2 in every 10 lung cancers are small cell lung cancer. These cancers affect a round type of cell called an ‘oat cell’. Small cell lung cancers are strongly linked to smoking. They can grow and spread rapidly, and will often need prompt treatment.
Non-small cell lung cancer: These cancers are more common, and make up around 8 in 10 of all lung cancer cases. There are three main types, based on the type of cell that is affected. These are adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and large cell carcinoma. Each type is treated differently.
Cancers that started elsewhere in the body then spread to the lung are called secondary lung cancers.
Other types of lung cancer
There are also other, more rare types of tumours that can be found in the lung and the surrounding area. Mesothelioma is one type. It begins in the outer membrane lining that covers our internal organs, most often in the membrane surrounding the lung. Asbestos exposure at work is a common cause of mesothelioma.
What are the causes of lung cancer?
Smoking still causes at least 7 out of every 10 cases of lung cancer. Passive smoking, breathing in other people’s second-hand smoke, can also be enough to produce cancer-causing damage to our cells.
There are several other known factors that can increase your risk of developing lung cancer, these can include:
- Exposure to workplace chemicals such as asbestos or silica
- Breathing in air pollution, like diesel fumes
- Increased exposure to radon gas, a natural gas that is present at greater levels in some areas
- Ionizing radiation, perhaps delivered as part of treatment for another cancer, can also occasionally lead to lung cancer developing
Other non-preventable factors like family genetics and age also have a role.
There is a still more work to be done to uncover the causes of lung cancer.
How are lung cancer rates changing?
Over the last two decades, rates of lung cancer have slightly decreased for some groups of people. But for others, cases continue to rise. Lung adenocarcinoma appears to be on the increase in young women in particular, and researchers and doctors are not yet sure why.
The increase does not appear to be completely linked to smoking and could be a combination of factors. Researchers are working hard to find out exactly what is driving these changes.
Research has helped to bring huge improvements in our understanding of smoking, and how it can cause lung cancer. This research has already saved countless lives. But we still need more research to keep on improving our understanding of the disease, and find new ways to diagnose and treat it. Your donations have already helped us fund an amazing £6 million pounds worth of cutting-edge lung cancer research.
The more that research can understand the causes of lung cancer, the more can be done to prevent it, treat it, and ultimately extend lives. Curestarter Jack and his dad John have found that, thanks to research, more people with lung cancer are now living longer than ever before.
How can I reduce my risk of lung cancer?
Some risk factors, like family history cannot be controlled, and some lung cancers cannot be prevented.
But there may still be things that you could do. Protecting yourself from tobacco smoke can be an important way to reduce your risk of lung cancer. As awareness and support for prevention improves, there’s now more help than ever available if you want to give up smoking or reduce your risks from passive smoking. Your doctor can help put you in touch with local support.
What are the symptoms of lung cancer?
Lung cancer symptoms are often very similar to other common health conditions. They may go unnoticed, especially early on. If there is anything you are unsure of, or if something just feels ‘off’, it is always a good idea to talk to your doctor.
Common lung cancer symptoms can include:
- A new cough that does not go away, or a change to a cough that you already have
- Breathlessness, having trouble catching your breath doing things you used to be able to do
- Pain in the chest, back, or shoulders
- Coughing up blood
- Persistent or recurring chest infections
- Persistent tiredness
- Loss of appetite, and weight loss
How is lung cancer treated?
Small cell lung cancer is usually treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy, separately or at the same time. Surgery might also be possible, if the cancer is very early and contained. Surgery usually involves a lobectomy (removal of part of the lung).
Non-small cell lung cancer is commonly treated with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy together, depending on the stage and type of cancer that you have.
Targeted therapies (which act on specific molecules involved in cancer growth) and immunotherapies (which work with our immune system to treat cancer) may also be used, if the cancer has spread outside the lung.
What are we doing about lung cancer?
As researchers understand more about the changes that drive lung cancer, new and much needed targeted therapies can be developed. This is just the sort of research that our Curestarters help to fund.
In 2013, your funding helped Dr Laura Soucek develop a possible new treatment called Omomyc which targets the MYC gene in cancer. Less than 10 years later, and Omomyc is now entering early clinical trials for patients with lung cancer and other types of advanced cancer.
Thanks to you, we are currently supporting several lung cancer research projects around the world.
Researchers in the UK are developing targeted treatments for mesothelioma, and testing a new drug to see if it can boost the effects of immunotherapy against lung cancer.
While researchers in Italy are using nanomedicine technology to develop a new type of treatment for non-small cell lung cancer.
In France, researchers are investigating how lung cancers become more aggressive, with the aim of improving diagnosis and uncovering new treatment targets.
With these projects we are making real progress investigating exactly how lung cancer begins, and finding new ways to make it end.