Skip Navigation Bar
NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

6 Common Cancers - Lung Cancer

NCI is at the forefront of research into how doctors diagnose and treat various types of cancer, as well as what advances are being made. The following pages highlight information you should know about six of the most common cancers and some of the NCI funded research currently under way. (In future issues, NIH MedlinePlus will feature research about additional forms of cancer.)

Actress Kathryn Joosten

Actress Kathryn Joosten, ex-smoker and lung cancer survivor, was the president's secretary on The West Wing and an Emmy winner for Desperate Housewives. (Photo ©2005 Kathy Hutchins / Hutchins)

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer causes more deaths than the next three most common cancers combined (colon, breast, and prostate). In 2007, scientists estimate that more than 213,000 people will be newly diagnosed with lung cancer, and over 160,000 people will die of the disease. Since 87 percent of lung cancers are caused by smoking, preventing people from starting to smoke and increasing the quit rate are important approaches.

Screening and Diagnosis

There are two main types of lung cancer: Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the more common type; small cell lung cancer (SCLC) makes up about 20 percent of all lung cancer cases.

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your medical history. She will ask if you smoke, and, if so, how long you have smoked. When listening to your chest with a stethoscope, your doctor can sometimes hear fluid around the lungs, which could (but doesn't always) suggest cancer. You may receive chest X-rays and possibly other chest scans. In some cases, your doctor may need to remove a piece of tissue from your lungs for examination under a microscope. This is called a biopsy.

Your symptoms may include a persistent cough, lingering bronchitis, and even coughing up blood. If lung cancer has advanced beyond the early stages and even spread (metastasized) beyond the lungs, symptoms may include weight loss, fatigue, difficulty breathing, and more severe reactions.


Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy are the most common forms of treatment for lung cancer. Surgery is used to cut out the entire lung or the part of the lung where the cancer is before it can spread. Chemotherapy, sometimes referred to as "chemo," is the use of strong drugs to treat cancer. There are more than 100 different chemo drugs used today to kill cancer or to slow its growth. Radiation therapy uses special equipment to send high doses of radiation to the cancer cells to kill them. Sometimes, your doctor will use surgery, chemo, and radiation therapy in combination.

Research: What's New

  • Targeting cancer antigens: When your immune system recognizes a foreign invader (called an antigen), it creates an antibody to help destroy that antigen. The antigen may be part of a virus, a bacterial cell, or a cancer cell. Certain cancer cells make antigens that are not found on the vast majority of normal, healthy cells. The body may not normally make antibodies against these antigens. However, scientists can develop special types of antibodies in the laboratory called "monoclonal" antibodies. When given to patients, these monoclonal antibodies bind to the foreign antigens on the surface of cancer cells and help destroy them. Recent studies indicate this approach holds promise.
  • Bevacizumab and chemotherapy: Last year, scientists announced a new development in treating advanced lung cancer. In a large study, people taking bevacizumab (Avastin) along with chemo lived slightly longer than those taking chemo alone.
  • Erlotinib: Another targeted treatment — approved for lung cancer in 2004 — is erlotinib (Tarceva), which targets a protein found on cancer cells that helps them multiply. People with late-stage lung cancer who had not done well with chemotherapy received erlotinib as a single treatment. On average, those taking erlotinib found some temporary easing of symptoms.
  • National Lung Screening Trial: One study related to earlier detection of lung cancer is the National Lung Screening Trial (NLST), a lung cancer screening trial sponsored by NCI and being conducted at more than 30 study sites in the United States. Launched in 2002, NLST is comparing two ways of detecting lung cancer: a process called spiral computed tomography (spiral CT) scanning of the chest and standard chest X-ray. NLST is trying to determine whether spiral CT helps find lung cancer better and earlier than chest X-rays.

Read More "6 Common Cancers" Articles
Lung Cancer / Breast Cancer / Prostate Cancer / Colorectal Cancer / Skin Cancer / Gynecologic Cancers

Spring 2007 Issue: Volume 2 Number 2 Page 8