Open pop-up dialogue box
Cancer that starts in the lungs is called lung cancer. Your lungs are two soft organs in your chest that take in oxygen when you breathe in and let out carbon dioxide when you breathe out.
Lung cancer is the most common type of cancer that kills people around the world.
Lung cancer is most likely to happen to people who smoke, but it can also happen to people who have never smoked. The longer and more often you smoke, the more likely it is that you will get lung cancer. Even if you have smoked for a long time, quitting can make it much less likely that you will get lung cancer.
Mayo Clinic Family Health Book, 5th Edition, a book about health care, is for sale.
Mayo Clinic has a lot more to offer.
In its early stages, lung cancer rarely shows any signs or symptoms. Most lung cancer symptoms and signs show up when the disease is already far along.
Some of the signs and symptoms of lung cancer are:
A new cough that keeps coming back
Even a small amount of blood when you cough
Not enough air to breathe
Not trying to lose weight
When to go to the doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have signs or symptoms that keep coming back and are making you worry.
Make an appointment with your doctor if you smoke and haven’t been able to stop. Your doctor can suggest ways to stop smoking, such as counselling, medicines, and products that replace nicotine.
Mayo Clinic care for lung cancer
Ask Mayo Clinic for an appointment
Get the latest cancer information from the Mayo Clinic sent to your inbox.
If you sign up for the free newsletter, you’ll get a detailed guide on how to deal with cancer and helpful information on how to get a second opinion. You can unsubscribe at any time.
Most lung cancers are caused by smoking, both in people who smoke and in people who are around smokers. But lung cancer can happen to people who have never smoked and who have never been around secondhand smoke for a long time. There may not be a clear reason why these people have lung cancer.
What smoking does to cause lung cancer
Doctors think that lung cancer is caused by smoking because it hurts the cells that line the lungs. When you breathe in cigarette smoke, which is full of chemicals that can cause cancer (called carcinogens), lung tissue changes almost right away.
Your body may be able to fix this damage at first. But every time you are exposed to it, normal cells that line your lungs become more damaged. Over time, the damage makes cells act in strange ways, which can lead to cancer.
Different kinds of lung cancer
Based on how lung cancer cells look under a microscope, doctors divide lung cancer into two main types. Your doctor will decide how to treat you based on what kind of lung cancer you have.
There are two main kinds of lung cancer, which are:
Small cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer almost always happens to people who smoke a lot and is less common than other types of lung cancer.
Non-small cell lung cancer. The term “non-small cell lung cancer” refers to a group of different types of lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancers include squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma and large cell carcinoma.
Several things can make you more likely to get lung cancer. Some risk factors can be changed, like giving up smoking. And some things, like your family history, can’t be changed.
Smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer. Your chance of getting lung cancer goes up with how many cigarettes you smoke every day and how long you’ve been smoking. Quitting at any age can cut your risk of getting lung cancer by a lot.
Being around people who smoke. Even if you don’t smoke, your chance of getting lung cancer goes up if you’re around people who do.
radiation therapy before. If you’ve had radiation therapy to your chest for another kind of cancer, your risk of getting lung cancer may be higher.
Exposure to radon gas. Radon is made when uranium in soil, rocks, and water breaks down naturally. It then gets into the air you breathe. Radon can build up in any building, including homes, to levels that are too high.
Being around asbestos and other cancer-causing substances. Asbestos and other known cancer-causing substances, like arsenic, chromium, and nickel, can increase your risk of getting lung cancer, especially if you smoke.
A history of lung cancer in the family. People are more likely to get lung cancer if a parent, sibling, or child has it.
Lung cancer can lead to problems, such as: not being able to get enough air. People with lung cancer can have trouble breathing if the cancer grows into the main airways and blocks them. Lung cancer can also cause fluid to build up around the lungs, which makes it harder for the lung to fully expand when you breathe in.
Expelling blood. Bleeding in the airway can be caused by lung cancer, which can make you cough up blood (hemoptysis). Bleeding can sometimes get really bad. There are treatments that can stop bleeding.
Pain. Pain can be caused by advanced lung cancer that has spread to the lining of a lung or to another part of the body, like a bone. Tell your doctor if you are in pain because there are many ways to treat pain.
Fluids in the lungs (pleural effusion). Lung cancer can cause fluid to build up in the chest cavity around the lung that is affected (pleural space).
When fluid builds up in the chest, it can make it hard to breathe. There are treatments that can drain the fluid from your chest and lower the chance that it will happen again.
Cancer that has spread to other parts of the body (metastasis). Lung cancer often spreads to other parts of the body, like the brain and the bones. This is called metastasis.
Depending on what organ is affected, cancer that spreads can cause pain, nausea, headaches, and other signs and symptoms. Once lung cancer has spread to other parts of the body, it is usually no longer treatable. There are treatments that can ease your symptoms and help you live longer.
There’s no way to be sure you won’t get lung cancer, but you can lower your risk by not smoking. If you’ve never smoked, don’t start. Talk to your kids about why they shouldn’t smoke so they can learn how to avoid this major lung cancer risk. Start talking to your kids early on about how bad it is to smoke so they know how to handle peer pressure.
Stop smoking. Stop smoking now. Even if you’ve been smoking for years, if you stop, your risk of getting lung cancer goes down. Talk to your doctor about strategies and tools to help you stop smoking. Products that replace nicotine, medications, and support groups are all choices.
Avoid being around smoke. If you live with or work with someone who smokes, try to get them to stop. At least tell him or her to go outside to smoke. Stay away from places where people smoke, like bars and restaurants, and look for places that are smoke-free.
Check for radon in your home. Check the level of radon in your home, especially if you live in an area where radon is a problem. High levels of radon can be fixed so that your home is safer. Contact your local department of public health or a local chapter of the American Lung Association to find out more about radon testing.
Try not to get cancer at work. Take care of yourself at work so you don’t get hurt by toxic chemicals. Follow the safety rules set by your employer. For example, if you are given a mask to protect your face, you should always wear it. Ask your doctor what else you can do to stay safe on the job. If you smoke, you are more likely to get lung damage from carcinogens at work.
Fruits and vegetables should make up most of your diet. Pick a healthy diet that includes a wide range of fruits and vegetables. The best place to get vitamins and other nutrients is from food. Don’t take a lot of vitamin pills, as they could be bad for you. For example, researchers gave beta carotene supplements to heavy smokers who were at high risk of getting lung cancer. The results showed that the supplements actually made smokers more likely to get cancer.
Most days of the week, work out. Start out slowly if you don’t usually work out. Try to work out at least five days a week.