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Lung Cancer: Overview and Symptoms

Lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer death for men and women worldwide. It is usually an aggressive cancer with a five–year survival rate of less than 15 percent. In the United States, there are nearly 200,000 cases diagnosed every year and 150,000 deaths.

Environmental exposures, particularly tobacco smoke and, to a lesser extent, air pollution, asbestos, and radon, are the chief causes of lung cancer. Tobacco smoking accounts for more than 90 percent of cases.

In advanced stages, the cancer invades surrounding organs and spreads (or “metastasizes”) elsewhere in the body. Sites of spread include the brain, liver, and bone.

There are four types of lung cancer, which have different clinical features.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type, accounting for 40 percent of cases. It begins in the central and upper parts of the lung and generally grows slowly.
  • Adenocarcinoma accounts for 25 percent of cases. It usually occurs in the outer sections of the lung. These also grow slowly, but they can spread beyond the lung faster than squamous cell carcinoma.
  • Small cell carcinoma accounts for 20 percent of cases. Virtually all cases are attributable to tobacco use. These cancers are aggressive. They grow quickly and spread beyond the lung early in the course of the disease.
  • Large cell carcinoma accounts for about 15 percent of cases. This type also advances quickly and spreads beyond the lung aggressively.


  • Generalized weakness and fatigue
  • Persistent cough: More than 90 percent of lung cancer patients complain of a gradually worsening cough. As the disease progresses, patients often cough up blood (hemoptysis).
  • Chest pain: The pain is usually sharp and may be associated with breathing.
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Persistent fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Hoarseness
  • Difficulty swallowing or painful swallowing
  • Recurring infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia
  • Advanced cases that spread beyond the lung may cause bone pain, neurologic changes (e.g., numbness, weakness, dizziness, seizures), jaundice (yellowish discoloration of the skin), and other symptoms.


Lung Cancer: Risk Factors, Diagnosis, and Treatment >>