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Lung cancer | Understanding and definitions of Lung Cancer | Symptoms and causes of Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is a disease that consists of uncontrolled cell growth in tissues of the lung. This growth may lead to metastasis, which is the invasion of adjacent tissue and infiltration beyond the lungs. The vast majority of primary lung cancers are carcinomas, derived from epithelial cells. Lung cancer, the most common cause of cancer-related death in men and women, is responsible for 1.3 million deaths worldwide annually, as of 2004. The most common symptoms are shortness of breath, coughing (including coughing up blood), and weight loss.

The main types of lung cancer are small-cell lung carcinoma and non-small-cell lung carcinoma. Non-small-cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC) is sometimes treated with surgery, while small-cell lung carcinoma (SCLC) usually responds better to chemotherapy and radiation. The most common cause of lung cancer is long-term exposure to tobacco smoke. Nonsmokers account for 15% of lung cancer cases, and these cases are often attributed to a combination of genetic factors, radon gas, asbestos, and air pollution including secondhand smoke.
Lung cancer may be seen on chest radiograph and computed tomography (CT scan). The diagnosis is confirmed with a biopsy. This is usually performed by bronchoscopy or CT-guided biopsy. Treatment and prognosis depend on the histological type of cancer, the stage (degree of spread), and the patient's performance status. Possible treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. Survival depends on stage, overall health, and other factors, but overall only 14% of people diagnosed with lung cancer survive five years after the diagnosis.

Symptoms that may suggest lung cancer include:
  • dyspnea (shortness of breath)
  • hemoptysis (coughing up blood)
  • chronic coughing or change in regular coughing pattern
  • wheezing
  • chest pain or pain in the abdomen
  • cachexia (weight loss), fatigue, and loss of appetite
  • dysphonia (hoarse voice)
  • clubbing of the fingernails (uncommon)
  •  dysphagia (difficulty swallowing).
If the cancer grows in the airway, it may obstruct airflow, causing breathing difficulties. The obstruction can lead to accumulation of secretions behind the blockage, and predispose to pneumonia. Many lung cancers have a rich blood supply. The surface of the cancer may be fragile, leading to bleeding from the cancer into the airway. This blood may subsequently be coughed up.

Depending on the type of tumor, so-called paraneoplastic phenomena may initially attract attention to the disease. In lung cancer, these phenomena may include Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome (muscle weakness due to auto-antibodies), hypercalcemia, or syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone (SIADH). Tumors in the top (apex) of the lung, known as Pancoast tumors, may invade the local part of the sympathetic nervous system, leading to changed sweating patterns and eye muscle problems (a combination known as Horner's syndrome) as well as muscle weakness in the hands due to invasion of the brachial plexus.

Many of the symptoms of lung cancer (bone pain, fever, and weight loss) are nonspecific; in the elderly, these may be attributed to comorbid illness. In many patients, the cancer has already spread beyond the original site by the time they have symptoms and seek medical attention. Common sites of metastasis include the brain, bone, adrenal glands, contralateral (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 radiograph.

The main causes of any cancer include carcinogens (such as those in tobacco smoke), ionizing radiation, and viral infection. This exposure causes cumulative changes to the DNA in the tissue lining the bronchi of the lungs (the bronchial epithelium). As more tissue becomes damaged, eventually a cancer develops.

Smoking, particularly of cigarettes, is by far the main contributor to lung cancer. Cigarette smoke contains over 60 known carcinogens, including radioisotopes from the radon decay sequence, nitrosamine, and benzopyrene. Additionally, nicotine appears to depress the immune response to malignant growths in exposed tissue. Across the developed world, 91% of lung cancer deaths in men during the year 2000 were attributed to smoking (71% for women). In the United States, smoking is estimated to account for 87% of lung cancer cases (90% in men and 85% in women). Among male smokers, the lifetime risk of developing lung cancer is 17.2%; among female smokers, the risk is 11.6%. This risk is significantly lower in nonsmokers: 1.3% in men and 1.4% in women.

Radon is a colorless 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 exposure is the second major cause of lung cancer in the general population, after smoking with the risk increasing 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. For example, in areas such as Cornwall in the UK (which has granite as substrata), radon gas is a major problem, and buildings have to be force-ventilated with fans to lower radon gas concentrations. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that one in 15 homes in the U.S. has radon levels above the recommended guideline of 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) (148 Bq/m³). Iowa has the highest average radon concentration in the United States; studies performed there have demonstrated a 50% increased lung cancer risk, with prolonged radon exposure above the EPA's action level of 4 pCi/L.

Asbestos can cause a variety of lung diseases, including lung cancer. There is a synergistic effect between tobacco smoking and asbestos in the formation of lung cancer. In the UK, asbestos accounts for 2–3% of male lung cancer deaths. Asbestos can also cause cancer of the pleura, called mesothelioma (which is different from lung cancer).

Viruses are known to cause lung cancer in animals, and recent evidence suggests similar potential in humans. Implicated viruses include human papillomavirus, JC virus, simian virus 40 (SV40), BK virus, and cytomegalovirus. These viruses may affect the cell cycle and inhibit apoptosis, allowing uncontrolled cell division.

Similar to many other cancers, lung cancer is initiated by activation of oncogenes or inactivation of tumor suppressor genes. Oncogenes are genes that are believed to make people more susceptible to cancer. Proto-oncogenes are believed to turn into oncogenes when exposed to particular carcinogens. Mutations in the K-ras proto-oncogene are responsible for 10–30% of lung adenocarcinomas. The epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) regulates cell proliferation, apoptosis, angiogenesis, and tumor invasion. Mutations and amplification of EGFR are common in non-small-cell lung cancer and provide the basis for treatment with EGFR-inhibitors. Her2/neu is affected less frequently. Chromosomal damage can lead to loss of heterozygosity. This can cause inactivation of tumor suppressor genes. Damage to chromosomes 3p, 5q, 13q, and 17p are particularly common in small-cell lung carcinoma. The p53 tumor suppressor gene, located on chromosome 17p, is affected in 60-75% of cases. Other genes that are often mutated or amplified are c-MET, NKX2-1, LKB1, PIK3CA, and BRAF.

Several genetic polymorphisms are associated with lung cancer. These include polymorphisms in genes coding for interleukin-1, cytochrome P450, apoptosis promoters such as caspase-8, and DNA repair molecules such as XRCC1. People with these polymorphisms are more likely to develop lung cancer after exposure to carcinogens.

A recent study suggested that the MDM2 309G allele is a low-penetrant risk factor for developing lung cancer in Asians.

Performing a chest radiograph is the first step if a patient reports symptoms that may suggest lung cancer. This may reveal an obvious mass, widening of the mediastinum (suggestive of spread to lymph nodes there), atelectasis (collapse), consolidation (pneumonia), or pleural effusion. If there are no radiographic findings but the suspicion is high (such as a heavy smoker with blood-stained sputum), bronchoscopy and/or a CT scan may provide the necessary information. Bronchoscopy or CT-guided biopsy is often used to identify the tumor type.

Abnormal findings in cells ("atypia") in sputum are associated with an increased risk of lung cancer. Sputum cytologic examination combined with other screening examinations may have a role in the early detection of lung cancer.

The differential diagnosis for patients who present with abnormalities on chest radiograph includes lung cancer as well as nonmalignant diseases. These include infectious causes such as tuberculosis or pneumonia, or inflammatory conditions such as sarcoidosis. These diseases can result in mediastinal lymphadenopathy or lung nodules, and sometimes mimic lung cancers. Lung cancer can also be an incidental finding: a solitary pulmonary nodule (also called a coin lesion) on a chest radiograph or CT scan taken for an unrelated reason. The definitive diagnosis of lung cancer and its classification (described above) is based on examination of the suspicious tissue under the microscope.

Lung cancers are classified according to histological type. This classification has important implications for clinical management and prognosis of the disease. The vast majority of lung cancers are carcinomas—malignancies that arise from epithelial cells. The two most prevalent histological types of lung carcinoma, categorized by the size and appearance of the malignant cells seen by a histopathologist under a microscope: non-small-cell and small-cell lung carcinoma. The non-small-cell type is the most prevalent by far (see accompanying table).

Cancer found outside of the lung may be determined to have arisen within the lung, as lung cancers that metastasize, i.e. spread, often retain a cell marker profile that allow a pathologist to say, with a good deal of certainty, that the tumor arose from the lung, i.e. is a primary lung cancer. Primary lung cancers of adenocarcinoma histology typically have nuclear immunostaining with TTF-1.

Lung cancer staging is an assessment of the degree of spread of the cancer from its original source. It is an important factor affecting the prognosis and potential treatment of lung cancer. Non-small-cell lung carcinoma is staged from IA ("one A"; best prognosis) to IV ("four"; worst prognosis). Small-cell lung carcinoma is classified as limited stage if it is confined to one half of the chest and within the scope of a single radiotherapy field; otherwise, it is extensive stage.

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 that 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 that 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. An estimated 75% of former miners died from lung cancer. Despite this discovery, mining continued into the 1950s, due to the USSR's demand for uranium.

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 (CHART) 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.

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