Lung cancer is one of the most prevalent forms of cancer in the world, and it is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. In fact, deaths from lung cancer outnumber deaths from ovarian, breast, and prostate cancers combined.

The good news is that, while lung cancer still has its mysteries, it is better understood than many other forms of cancer. Doctors do, for example, know that smoking is one of the leading risk factors of lung cancer. Thus, avoiding smoking is a step in the right direction for lung cancer prevention. While there is no current cure, health experts have developed a variety of treatment options to manage lung cancer and potentially put it into remission. Determining the right conventional or holistic treatment for lung cancer starts with staging. What are the stages of lung cancer? Read on to learn more about the different stages of lung cancer.

Understanding Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is any type of cancer that originates in the lungs. This is different from forms of cancer that start elsewhere and spread into the lungs, which is known as secondary lung cancer. Lung cancer can affect just about any lung tissue and is divided into two main categories. The two types of lung cancer are small-cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer.

Lung cancer can be hard to spot early on as it rarely presents any noticeable symptoms until it has advanced, however, there are still some early signs of lung cancer. Specific lung cancer symptoms can also vary from case to case. Some of the most common signs and symptoms include:

  • A sudden cough that cannot be explained by a viral or bacterial infection
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing or hoarseness
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest pain
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Bone pain
  • Headaches
  • General fatigue

If you have any of these persistent symptoms, you should consult your doctor.

Diagnosing Lung Cancer

Those who have an increased risk of lung cancer (usually those who have a history of heavy smoking or asbestos exposure) may be recommended to receive annual lung cancer screenings in the form of a low-dose CT scan. These annual screenings are usually offered to people over the age of 55 who have a history of heavy smoking but are otherwise healthy.

Aside from these annual screenings, if you believe you might have lung cancer, your doctor can recommend a variety of tests to diagnose your health. This usually starts with a basic physical examination and discussion of your family’s medical history or genetic causes of lung cancer. If these results suggest the potential for lung cancer, your doctor can proceed with more thorough tests. The following tests are ways to detect lung cancer.

Imaging Tests

Imaging tests allow your doctor to reveal any abnormal masses, nodules, or lesions in your lungs and can help to determine if the cancer has spread. Imaging tests can vary but may include:

  • X-rays
  • MRIs
  • CT scan
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scans
  • Bone scans

Not every imaging test is necessarily appropriate for every patient, so talk to your doctor to determine what might work best for your needs.

Sputum Cytology

If you have a cough, the doctors may look at your sputum to determine if you have lung cancer. Sputum is the mix of spit and mucus that you cough up from your lungs. Doctors can actually look at a sample of sputum and identify any cancer cells in it. This test is more effective in identifying squamous cell cancer and other cancers that start within the major airways of the lungs. This means that a negative sputum test does not necessarily eliminate the potential for lung cancer.

Thoracentesis

In some cases, fluid will form around your lungs. Your doctor can remove this fluid and determine if it’s a result of cancer in the tissue lining your lungs. In the lab, doctors can examine the fluid for the presence of cancer cells. However, this buildup of fluid can also come from heart issues and infections.

Needle Biopsy

A biopsy involves removing a tissue sample and examining it for cancerous material. With a needle biopsy, your doctor uses a hollow needle to remove a tissue sample from a suspicious mass. Needle biopsies are advantageous as they do not require an incision, but they only involve the removal of a small amount of tissue. This may not be enough to both diagnose you and perform tests to determine the best modes of lung cancer treatment.

Staging Lung Cancer

Once you have been diagnosed, your doctor can proceed to the cancer staging process. Lung cancer stages allow the doctor to determine if the cancer has spread and if so, the extent of that spread. This also helps the doctor determine an effective treatment plan.

The different stages of lung cancer depend on if it is small cell or non-small cell lung cancer, though both involve the TNM staging system:

  • T (tumor) – The size of the tumor and its growth into other organs and structures
  • N (nodes) – The cancer has spread to the lymph nodes
  • M (metastasis) – The cancer has metastasized, spreading to organs that are far away from its origin

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Stages

Non-small cell lung cancer uses the typical numbering system along with the TNM staging system to determine the stage. The extent of the cancer is designated by Roman numbers 0 to IV along with T, N, or M. The higher the Roman numeral, the more severe the size and spread of the cancer.

Small Cell Lung Cancer Stages

For small cell lung cancer, doctors generally use a two-stage system along with the TNM system.

In the limited stage, the cancer exists only on one side of the chest, which includes cancers that only affect one lung and may have reached lymph nodes on only one side of the chest. This may also include affected lymph nodes located at the center of the chest. The main idea is that the cancer is confined to a single area that is small enough to be treated within one radiation field. About one out of three people with small cell lung cancer will have cancer in a limited stage.

Extensive stage cancer refers to lung cancer that has spread widely, affecting:

  • Both lungs
  • Lymph nodes on the other side of the chest
  • Other parts of the body, including the bone marrow

Lung cancer that has spread to the fluids surrounding the lung is also considered to be in the extensive stage. For two out of three people with lung cancer, the cancer has progressed to the extensive stage by the time it is found.

Along with these two stages, small cell lung cancer also uses the TNM system. Roman numerals 0 through IV designate the severity and the spread of lung cancer, identifying cancers that have metastasized to other parts of the body.

The cancer staging process is vital to understanding the extent of your lung cancer and for figuring out the best plan of action. Understanding lung cancer stages can also help you understand the types of conventional or alternative cancer treatment options available. If you believe you may have lung cancer or are at risk for developing lung cancer, please consult your doctor as soon as possible. The sooner you receive a diagnosis and treatment, the better your survival rate.

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January 17, 2020