Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment Options
Unlike for many other cancers, there is no standard screening for lung cancer at this point. However, if you're concerned about your risks, talk to your doctor about testing.
If there is a suspicion of cancer, a doctor will schedule you for one or more of these examinations.
X-rays and computerized tomography (CT) scans: Using these imaging tests, your doctor can detect any problematic lesions or masses on your lungs.
Sputum analysis: If you're producing phlegm or mucus when you cough, your doctor can test a sample. This may show signs of cancer cells.
Biopsy: There are a few ways in which your doctor can take samples of your tissues to test. He may do a needle biopsy, in which he inserts a needle through your chest to take sample of suspicious areas. During this test, you will be awake and given local anesthesia. Your doctor will use an x-ray or CT scan to guide the needle during the test.
He may do a bronchoscopy, in which he inserts a long tube down your throat and to your lungs. The tube has a light on it and produces images of your lungs for the doctor to evaluate. Depending on which type of tube your doctor uses - flexible or rigid - you will have either local or general anesthesia.
Another option is for taking sample tissue is a mediastinoscopy. During this test, your doctor makes an incision at the bottom of your neck and takes samples from your lymph nodes near your breast bone. For this procedure, you will have general anesthesia and feel nothing.
Before undergoing any of these tests, talk to your doctor about the medications you're on. Make sure you aren't taking anything that could affect the test results.
If your tests are clear, continue your efforts to prevent lung cancer and stay healthy. If your tests show cancer, your physician will then determine what stage you are in and suggest a course of treatment. The stages are generally these.
- Stage I: The cancer is present in the lungs but has not spread to the lymph nodes.
- Stage II: The cancer has spread to the adjacent lymph nodes and/or the chest wall.
- Stage IIIA: The cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the center of the chest.
- Stage IIIB: The cancer has spread throughout the chest to organs such as the heart, esophagus, trachea, and blood vessels or to tissue around the lungs.
- Stage IV: The cancer has spread throughout the body, reaching areas such as the brain, liver, and bones.
Another classification for lung cancer is small cell cancer. If this is your condition, your doctor may describe it this way: Limited means the cancer is just affecting one lung and its adjacent lymph nodes. Extensive means the cancer has spread beyond one lung and has reached other organs.
Treatment: Get Better
If you've been diagnosed with lung cancer, you may have dozens of questions and concerns. You may wonder what you should do next. And you may worry about how this disease will affect you and your family.
It's important that you take time to gather all the information that you can and talk to your doctor about the best course of action. Here are some possibilities.
Surgery: If you are in the early stages of cancer, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove part of a lung, all of a lung, or the lung along with the nearby lymph nodes. How extensive the surgery is depends on the extent and location of your cancer.
All forms of the surgery are done under general anesthesia. As with all operations, there are risks including infection and bleeding. However, your surgeon will take every precaution. After the surgery, you may feel shortness of breath, since your lung capacity is now smaller. You may be able to work with a respiratory therapist to improve this condition.
Chemotherapy: This treatment may be recommended alone or in conjunction with surgery and/or radiation therapy. In the later stages of cancer, it helps slow the growth of the disease even when surgery is no longer possible. In chemotherapy, you'll receive cancer-fighting drugs either through pills or an IV. In most cases, chemotherapy is done in cycles, so your body can recover for a few days after each treatment. Many people report side effects of hair loss, nausea, and fatigue.
Radiation: Radiation therapy is often used along with chemotherapy and surgery. In this treatment, strong energy x-rays are pinpointed at your cancer cells to destroy them. You may feel nausea and fatigue following these treatments.
In some cases, your condition may be too advanced to treat. Your doctor will recommend you get supportive care, which includes medications to help you feel more comfortable.
Follow-up: Keep Watch
After you've been treated for lung cancer, it's important that you monitor your health. Be sure to schedule and keep follow-up appointments. Your doctor will do physical exams and recommend that you get x-rays and lab tests to check for any recurrence of the cancer. If you notice any of these symptoms, be sure to talk to your doctor right away.
- Chest pain
- A new or persistent cough
- Any additional health problems
As you recover, spend time with people who mean a lot to you. Join a support group, so you can share information and talk about your experiences. Be sure to accept all the help that is offered to you.