Lung Cancer Common Questions

3D rendering of the chest cavity with the lungs highlighted and a tumor showing in one lung

Have you or a loved one received a diagnosis of lung cancer? You probably have a lot of questions. There’s a lot of information to take in after a cancer diagnosis. Your doctor can answer questions specific to your care, but we have compiled a list of some of the most common questions for your reference below. You can also learn more about lung and thoracic cancer care at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center.

What is the thorax, and what are lung and thoracic cancers?

The thorax, more commonly called the chest, includes the upper half of your trunk. It extends from the bottom of your ribs ribs up to the base of your neck. Your thoracic cavity (your chest cavity) contains important organs and structures such as your heart, lungs, trachea, esophagus, and the brachial plexus and vagal nerves, which are surrounded and protected by your rib cage and spine.

Thoracic cancers are masses of abnormal cells that grow in and around the organs, glands, and structures of your chest. Lung cancer is the most common type of thoracic cancer. When a thoracic tumor or abnormal growth compresses any of the important organs or structures in your chest, it can cause problems with breathing, eating, blood circulation, or nerve conduction.

What are the signs and symptoms of lung and thoracic cancers?

In early stages, lung and thoracic cancers often have no signs or symptoms, making them hard to diagnose. While symptoms of lung and thoracic cancer will vary depending on the type and location, possible signs can include:

  • A new cough that won’t go away or gets worse
  • Changes in a cough you’ve had for a while such as bringing up rusty-looking or bloody mucus
  • Chest pain that gets worse when you laugh, cough or take a deep breath
  • New or frequent heartburn, indigestion or vomiting
  • Unusual tiredness or weakness
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Hoarse voice
  • Unusual weight loss or having no appetite

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it's important to talk with your doctor to make sure they do not indicate a lung or thoracic cancer. An imaging test like an X-ray, ultra-sound, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can help identify any unusual areas in your chest, and a needle biopsy can confirm whether or not there are any cancer cells present.

How common is lung cancer?

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the United States after breast cancer, with about 240,000 people diagnosed each year in nearly equal numbers of men and women. There are two main types of lung cancer. Most (84%) are classified as non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLCs), and about 13% are classified as small-cell lung cancers (SCLCs).

Lung cancer is one of the many thoracic cancers that can affect the organs, glands and tissues of your chest (your thoracic cavity).

What is the lung cancer survival rate?

About 64% of people with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) that is localized (i.e., has not spread to nearby tissues) survive for at least five years after diagnosis. About 29% of those with localized small cell lung cancer (SCLC), one of the more aggressive types, survive for at least five years after diagnosis.

Generally, the further a lung cancer has spread when it is first found, the lower the five-year survival rate. However, it is important to remember that your individual case and the many factors that affect survival are unique to you, including your cancer subtype and genetics, your age and overall health, and how well your cancer responds to treatment. Remember that lung cancer treatments are advancing rapidly and survival rates are steadily improving.

Can lung or thoracic cancer be cured completely?

The short answer is, yes, you can be cured, but your individual outcome depends on many factors such as how advanced your cancer is, the type of cancer, your unique genetic markers, and how your particular cancer responds to treatment.

All cancer patients enter into a surveillance program that includes routine CT scans to assess their ongoing response to treatment and identify whether you have had any recurrence of your cancer. Following your long-term care plan is one of the most important ways you can support your health and well-being moving forward.

How are lung and thoracic cancers treated?

Most people receive several different types of treatment over an extended period of time to make sure their cancer is treated as thoroughly as possible. Early in your treatment journey, minimally invasive surgery may be used to identify the subtype and stage of your cancer. More extensive surgery may be necessary to remove as much cancerous tissue as possible from your lungs and chest including any nearby areas where it may have spread (e.g., your lymph nodes).

You may also receive radiation treatments to destroy any remaining cancer cells in the local area. Systemic treatments like chemotherapy and immunotherapy help ensure there are no cancer cells in other parts of your body and may also be part of your treatment plan.

The exact combination and types of treatment you receive depends on the type and stage of your cancer, whether and where it has spread, and your overall health and personal preferences.

What causes lung cancer, and how can I prevent it?

All cancers result from accumulated damage to your cellular DNA that leads to cell mutations and abnormal cell growth. By far, smoking causes the most cases of lung and thoracic cancer in the US each year. Fully 90% of lung cancers are linked to smoking. If you smoke, the best way to reduce your risk of lung cancer is to quit. You can seek help quitting from our Smoking Cessation Program and Tobacco Treatment Program.

Your genes, age, and hormones can also contribute to your risk. Many people do not realize that your risk for lung and thoracic cancer is closely tied to lifestyle factors such as your diet, weight, exercise habits, and smoking. 

Environmental risk factors can also contribute to the development of lung and thoracic cancer, including radon exposure, radiation exposure (e.g., from the UVA and UVB rays in sunlight or radioactive materials), inhaled carcinogenic substances (e.g., asbestos), and certain industrial chemicals. Cancers that start in other parts of your body, such as the breast or pancreas, can also spread to the lungs and thoracic cavity.

Is there a lung cancer screening test to help find it early?

It is important to get screened for lung cancer if you are at risk. Research shows that lung cancer screening is very effective but under-utilized to detect cancer early in people who are at high risk. In particular, current or former heavy smokers (a pack-a-day or more) can benefit from a yearly screening test called a low-dose CT (LDCT) scan.

Screening is also recommended for other people at high risk for lung cancer who do not have any symptoms, because screening can help find lung cancers at an early stage and saves lives. If you think you are at risk for lung or thoracic cancer, talk to your doctor about having an annual screening test. As with all cancers, the earlier a lung or thoracic cancer is diagnosed and treated, the higher your chance of recovery and survival.

Can a thoracic spine MRI show lung cancer?

Imaging tests are very important for diagnosing lung cancer, determining its stage and how it is responding to treatment (i.e., whether it is shrinking, growing, or staying the same size). Traditionally, CT and positron emission tomography CT (PET/CT) scans are used. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be used in some cases to assess how much the cancer may involve the chest wall, spine, or adjacent nerves.

What is thoracic surgery for lung cancer?

Thoracic surgery for lung cancer includes minimally invasive and larger procedures (called open surgeries) to determine the type and stage of your cancer and to remove and repair cancerous areas of your lungs and other chest tissues. Depending on the tumor location, size, and whether and where the cancer may have spread, your surgery may also involve removing tissue from your heart, chest wall, or esophagus.

Specialty trained thoracic surgeons remove lung and thoracic cancers and often collaborate with specialized cardiac, neuro-, and vascular surgeons, particularly when the cancer has spread to your heart, blood vessels, or nerves. This team-based approach of bringing multiple specialists together ensures that all of the relevant experts are working together to provide you with the best outcome possible.

What does a chest wall tumor feel like?

A tumor on your chest wall may cause swelling, or you may feel a lump or bump on your ribs, upper back, or chest. You may also have pain or an aching soreness in your chest. Depending on the tumor size and location, you may experience restricted movement in your torso, arm, shoulder, or neck. However, it is not uncommon for people with chest wall tumors to have no symptoms at all, particularly if the tumor is small and at an early stage.