Heart & Lung Health

What to Know about Non-small Cell Lung Cancer

Lung cancer starts in the cells of the lung which mutate and begin to grow abnormally. There are two main types of lung cancer small-cell and non-small cell. The former is exclusively observed in heavy smokers while the latter can affect anyone and is much more common. Around 80% to 85% of the lung cancers are non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

The following are the primary subtypes of non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLC):

  • Adenocarcinoma: This type of NSCLC begins in the cells of the air sacs that produce mucus and other substances, typically situated in the outer area of the lungs. Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of lung cancer observed in both, nonsmokers and smokers usually below the age of 45. As compared to other kinds of lung cancers, adenocarcinoma progresses slowly.
  • Squamous cell (epidermoid) carcinoma: This lung cancer originates in cells of the inner airway lining. Almost 25% to 30% of the lung cancers are identified as squamous cell (epidermoid) carcinoma. This form of lung cancer is generally observed in patients with a history of smoking.
  • Large cell (undifferentiated) carcinoma: Approximately 10% of the total lung cancer cases detected are large cell (undifferentiated) carcinoma. This particular NSCLC  progresses at a rapid pace and is comparatively harder to treat.
  • Adenosquamous carcinoma and sarcomatoid carcinoma are the other two subtypes of NSCLC are rarely observed.

Unlike small cell lung cancer that occurs in individuals with a history of heavy smoking, NSCLC significantly affects non smokers too. Apart from smoking, here are some other factors that can cause non-small cell lung cancer:

  • Asbestos
  • Minerals and metal dust
  • Polluted air
  • Radiation treatment to breast or chest
  • Radon, type of radioactive gas that is naturally found in soil and rocks

Symptoms of NSCLC
The signs and symptoms of NSCLC might be nonexistent or vague in the early stages. In some cases, the symptoms can be mistaken for another pulmonary condition such as collapsed lung or pneumonia. The following are the common symptoms of NSCLC.

  • A persistent cough that keeps getting worse
  • Chest pain while coughing, taking deep breaths or laughing
  • Wheezing
  • Hoarse voice
  • Coughing blood or mucus
  • Trouble breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Lung problems like bronchitis or pneumonia that don’t improve with treatment
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss

If this cancer metastasizes then additional symptoms might come to the surface such as headaches, dizziness, numbness or weakness in an arm or leg, bone pain, and yellow skin or eyes. If any of these symptoms last for more than a week, then one should immediately consult a pulmonologist. To diagnose this condition, the pulmonologist will conduct a physical exam. If they suspect the symptoms to be severe, then they might order for sputum cytology, bronchoscopy, and imaging tests such as MRI, x-rays, ultrasound, PET or CT scans.  

Treating non-small cell lung cancer
The main goal of the NSCLC is to alleviate the symptoms by destroying the tumor. In the early stages, surgery might be used to remove the affected part. If cancer can’t be eliminated entirely with surgery then treatments including radiation, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or PDT (photo and laser therapy) can be implemented to kill the remaining cancer cells.

Since lung cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer, a lot of research underway to introduce new diagnostic measures as well as treatments that are noninvasive and have lesser side-effects than conventional treatment methods such as chemotherapy.