Our body is like a machine and each part of the machine has a definite function to perform. Lungs, heart, brain, kidneys and every other part is important to support the function of life. A disease like cancer in any part of the body could cause severe impairment sometimes even resulting in death.
What is Lung Cancer?
Lung cancer results due to the excessive growth of cells with abnormalities in one or both the lungs. The deformed cells do not have any functions like the other normal healthy cells and do not contribute towards the building of healthy lung tissues. An excessive growth of cells leads to the formation of tumors that interfere with the normal and healthy functioning of the lungs i.e carrying out the exchange of gasses in the body.
The cells of our body are made up of genetic substances. Each cell contains a genetic ingredient known as deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA which is more popularly known. A mature cell breaks and forms new cells which contain a replica DNA of the parent cell. In other words, the cells are copies of the parent cell, completely the same in every way. This is how the body constantly keeps up a balance of the cells with old cells dying off and the new ones replacing them.
A cancer is caused due to certain changes the body cells undergo in their DNA. The DNA alterations can be caused by various factors including aging, environmental factors, lifestyle factors and exposure to various other external elements over a period of time.
According to various researchers, a number of genetic mutations together result in the creation of cancerous cells in the lungs. Before the cells turn cancerous in nature, they are pre-cancerous which means they still have certain functionalities of the normal lung cells before completely turning redundant for the body.
Primary vs. Secondary Lung Cancer
Primary lung cancer is a cancer that builds up in the lungs. The cells which are cancerous in nature are originally abnormal cells of the lungs. In a number of cases, people have cancer that travels from the affected cancer cells. This can spread to any part of the body including the lungs. This form of lung cancer is known as secondary lung cancer as it comes from another source when compared to the primary source which is the origin of cancer. This distinction is important when selecting the course of treatment as it should be directed to the primary source of cancer origin rather than the secondary source.
Identifying Lung Cancer: Know the Symptoms
The greatest limitation of any form of cancer is that the symptoms never show up early which delays the entire diagnosis and treatment process.
Like any other form of cancer, the symptoms of lung cancer never show up usually in the initial stage of the cancer development. When they do start showing up, following are the signs to look out for:
- Severe coughing that could last long and comes with mucus that may have traces of blood in it.
- Series of respiratory infections that could keep recurring including severe lung conditions like bronchitis and pneumonia.
- Breathlessness, wheezing and pain in the chest that could be short term or long term.
- Voice being harsh and hoarse.
- Inflammation of the neck and face region.
- Extreme pain or weakening of the shoulders and hand region including the arms.
- Tiredness or fatigue, sudden loss of appetite and weight, temperature that could be high or low lasting short term or for a longer period, aches and pains all over the body.
- Swallowing difficulties
Diagnosing Lung Cancer
Lung cancer is not very easy to confirm and diagnosis can be a little tricky. A physical examination by your doctor may create doubts with regard to lung cancer in your body. However, it may not be a confirmed diagnosis until it is being supported by certain tests. Some physical abnormalities that could indicate lung cancer are:
- Inflammation of the lymph nodes right above the collarbone
- Troubled breathing
- Weird sounds in the lungs
- Emptiness felt when tapping the chest
- Sleepy and droopy eyes
- Fatigue and tiredness in the arm
- Swelling in the veins of the arms, chest or neck
- Inflammation in the face
Sometimes the lung cancer can interfere with the blood levels as they produce excessively high levels of some hormones or compounds like calcium. In case if a person is having such symptoms with no definitive causes attached to the same, further prognosis should be done to check for the symptoms of lung cancer.
Primary lung cancer which is triggered in the lungs can travel to other parts of the body gradually impacting other organs like the liver, brain, bones and other glands. There is a possibility of secondary cancer showing symptoms first so that the true origin could be traced back to the lungs.
Once the symptoms of lung cancer start to show up, the condition can be viewed in an imaging scan such as an X-ray. Sometimes the lung cancer which has not exhibited any symptoms may also be seen in a chest X-ray that could have been taken for some other purpose. Once there is a suspected view of a cancerous growth, a detailed examination like a CT scan of the chest may be recommended for more clarity.
Although testing the mucus or fluids present in the lungs can help in diagnosing cancer cells that are fully developed, the best and the most definitive way of confirming lung cancer is through a lung biopsy. During a biopsy, the patient is administered a mild dose of anesthesia and it is followed by a thin tube directed towards the lungs up to the site where the growth is seen in the imaging scan. A tiny tissue sample is obtained from the growth for further microscopic testing. This procedure is known as bronchoscopy and the device used is called a bronchoscope. This procedure is helpful in detecting tumors situated around the center of the lungs.
In case if the biopsy confirms the diagnosis of lung cancer, further investigation may be recommended to classify the type of lung cancer and to know the extent of damage. Lymph nodes around the cancerous cells may be tested through a non-surgical procedure called mediastinoscopy and other imaging scans may be used to find out if the cancer is seen anywhere else in the body. If fluid is present within the lining of the lungs, it can be removed using a needle to improve breathing and to test for cancer. If the fluid tests are negative, which happens in about 60% of the cases, then other tests may be performed to check for tumors within the lining of the lungs.
When Should You See a Doctor?
The signs of lung cancer show up late. Therefore, consult a doctor as soon as you see the basic signs for further investigation. Following symptoms should ring the warning bells to see a doctor at the earliest:
- Any symptoms associated with lung cancer as mentioned above
- A sudden cough or worsening of existing cough symptoms
- Traces of blood in the mucus produced from a cough
- Sudden loss of weight
- Excessive fatigue or tiredness
- Extreme aches or pains in the body