Lung cancer is the leading cause of death due to cancer in America; about one out of four cancer deaths are from lung cancer. There are approximately 222,500 new cases of lung cancer (116,990 in men and 105,510 in women), and an estimated 155,870 deaths (84,590 in men and 71,280 in women) each year (American Cancer Society, 2017.) More men and women die of lung cancer than of colon, breast and prostate cancers combined (ACS, 2017.)
But the good news is that the earlier lung cancer is identified and treated, the better the odds of survival. The challenge is finding it in its early stage — which can be difficult because most lung cancers don't cause noticeable symptoms until the disease has spread to other parts of the body. Being aware of risk factors that might predispose you to lung cancer and knowing some of the common signs and symptoms of lung cancer can increase the odds of it being discovered at an earlier, and potentially more treatable, stage.
Common risk factors
- Smoking is the number-one cause of lung cancer, responsible for about 85-90 percent of lung cancers — including secondhand smoke in nonsmokers.
- Radon, a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that occurs naturally in soil, is another cause of lung cancer, although this is relatively uncommon — contributing to an estimated 20,000 lung cancer deaths annually.
- Inhalation of hazardous chemicals is also linked to lung cancer. Asbestos, uranium, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel and some petroleum products are especially dangerous.
- Another risk factor is particle pollution — inhaling a mix of very tiny solid and liquid particles such as exhaust smoke.
Keep in mind that lung cancer can still develop even without these risk factors present. That is why recognizing symptoms is so critical.
Lung cancer signs and symptoms
Lung cancer can cause symptoms that are linked to breathing such as:
- A persistent or chronic cough that gets worse over time
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath or wheezing
- Frequent pneumonia or bronchitis
- Frequent lung infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia
- Having blood in your sputum when you cough
Other symptoms more commonly appear after the lung cancer has spread. These include:
- Bone or back pain or fractures
- Swelling of the neck and face
- Appetite loss
- Weight loss
- New inability to control the bladder or bowel
- Seizure activity, specific weakness or numbness
- Unexplained clotting problems resulting in heart attack or stroke
If you are experiencing symptoms, talk to your doctor about screening tests such as a sputum cytology or low-dose spiral CT scan. Learn more about screening for lung cancer.