The lungs are two sponge-like organs found in the chest, which bring air in and out of the body. The lining around the lungs, called the pleura, helps to protect the lungs and allows them to move during breathing. The windpipe, trachea, allows air to flow into the lungs. It divides into tubes called bronchi, which divide into smaller branches called bronchioles. At the end of these small branches are tiny sacs known as alveoli.
Lung cancer starts in the lining of a lung airway or a gland in the lung. Most lung cancers start in the lining of the bronchi, but they also can begin in other areas such as the trachea, bronchioles, or alveoli. As the lung cancer grows, cancerous cells can break away and spread to other parts of the body in a process called metastasis.
As the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women, lung cancer often takes many years to develop and is difficult to detect at an early stage when it has a greater potential for cure. More Americans die each year from lung cancer than from breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers combined.
Two main types of lung cancer exist, named for how the cells appear under a microscope: small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). A third type, lung carcinoid tumors, is much rarer. Treatment options depend in part on which kind you have.
Small Cell Lung Cancer (SCLC)
Small cell lung cancer represents about 10 to 15 percent of lung cancer cases and is fast-growing, typically found in both lungs and usually symptom-less until it reaches later stages. It is almost always associated with smoking and often spreads before it’s found. The two sub-types of SCLC are:
- Small cell carcinoma (oat cell cancer)
- Combined small cell carcinoma (mixed small cell/non-small cell carcinoma)
Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC)
About 80 percent of lung cancers are non-small cell lung cancer, which usually grows and spreads to other parts of the body more slowly than small cell lung cancer. The main subtypes of NSCLC are:
- Adenocarcinoma develops in epithelial tissue cells, often in an outer area of the lung.
- Squamous Cell (Epidermoid) Carcinoma is usually found in the center of the lung next to an air tube (bronchus).
- Large Cell (Undifferentiated) Carcinoma can occur in any part of the lung and tends to grow and spread the fastest.
Mixed Small Cell/ Large Cell Cancer
This type of lung cancer occurs when the cancer has features of both small and non-small cell lung cancer.
Lung Carcinoid Tumors
In addition to the two major types of lung cancer, there are other lung tumors. Lung carcinoid tumors are a third type of lung cancer, representing fewer than 5 percent of cases. Most of the tumors do not spread quickly and can be treated with surgery.
A rare cancer of the tissues that line and protect your lungs, chest (pleural mesothelioma), and abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma). It is due to long-term asbestos exposure.
Metastasized Cancer in the Lungs
Cancer can spread (metastasize) to the lungs from other parts of the body, through the bloodstream, or lymphatic system.Although the cancer now exists in the lungs, your doctors do not classify it as lung cancer because it did not originate in the lungs.
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