Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer death, responsible for an estimated 160,000 deaths in the United States annually. There are two major types: non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer, so named because of how the cells look under a microscope. Non-small cell lung cancer is more common, and it generally grows and spreads more slowly. There are three main types of non-small cell lung cancer, named for the type of cells in which the cancer develops: squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, and large cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer grows more quickly and is more likely to spread to other organs in the body.

Signs and Symptoms

Lung cancer is accompanied by the following signs and symptoms.

What Causes It?

Multiple exposure to carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) results in damage to DNA in the cells of the body.

Who's Most At Risk?

Tobacco smoke is the biggest carcinogen, responsible for 85 percent of all lung cancers in the United States. Risk increases with the amount of tobacco used, and the amount of time it has been used. Non-smokers exposed to tobacco smoke are also at risk for developing lung cancer. Other risk factors include the following.

What to Expect at Your Provider's Office

If you are experiencing symptoms associated with lung cancer, you should see your health care provider. He or she will evaluate your medical history, smoking history, exposure to environmental and occupational substances, and family history of cancer, and will perform a physical exam. You may be sent for a chest X ray and other tests. These include a sputum cytology, the microscopic examination of cells obtained from a deep-cough sample of mucus in the lungs. A biopsy—the removal of a small sample of tissue for examination under a microscope by a pathologist—can confirm whether you have cancer.

If cancer is present, your provider will want to learn the stage (or extent) of the disease to find out whether the cancer has spread, particularly to the brain or bones, using tests such as computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), radionuclide scan, and bone scan.

Treatment Options

The best means of prevention is to never start smoking or using chewing tobacco, or to stop using tobacco products. A healthy diet is an important part of prevention.

Treatment Plan
A treatment plan depends on the cell type, stage of disease, possibility for removing the tumor, and the patient's ability to survive surgery.

Drug Therapies

Various therapies can be used to treat lung cancer.

Surgical and Other Procedures

Surgery is the only treatment that offers hope of a cure of non-small cell lung cancer. Removal of a small part of the lung is a segmental or wedge resection, removal of an entire lobe of the lung is a lobectomy, and removal of an entire lung is a pneumonectomy. Radiation therapy is used before surgery to shrink a tumor, or after surgery to destroy remaining cancer cells. Radiation therapy may also be used instead of surgery or to relieve symptoms such as shortness of breath.

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

A comprehensive treatment plan for lung cancer may include a range of complementary and alternative therapies. Ask your team of health care providers about the best ways to incorporate these therapies into your overall treatment plan.


Include in your diet dark green, yellow, and orange vegetables, as well as dark berries, green tea, onions, garlic, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, and cabbage. Increase whole grains and anti-inflammatory oils (nuts, seeds, and cold-water fish). Eliminate refined foods, sugar, alcohol, and saturated fats (animal products, especially dairy).

Potentially beneficial nutrient supplements include the following.


Herbal remedies may help cleanse the body, inhibit tumor growth, and support the immune system. Herbs are generally available as dried extracts (pills, capsules, or tablets), teas, or tinctures (alcohol extraction, unless otherwise noted). Dose for teas is 1 heaping tsp. per cup of water steeped for 10 minutes (roots need 20 minutes).


Homeopathy may help reduce symptoms, relieve side effects from treatments, and reduce the effects of stress.

Physical Medicine

Castor oil pack over lungs may decrease side effects of chemotherapy and aid the lungs in detoxification. Saturate a cloth with castor oil and apply directly to the skin, placing a heat source (heating pad or water bottle) on top. Leave in place for 30 minutes or more. For best results, use castor oil packs for three to four consecutive days per week. Packs may be used daily.


While acupuncture is not used as a treatment for cancer itself, evidence suggests it can be a valuable therapy for cancer-related symptoms (particularly nausea and vomiting that often accompanies chemotherapy treatment). There have also been studies indicating that acupuncture may help reduce pain and shortness of breath. Acupressure (pressing on rather than needling acupuncture points) has also proved useful in controlling breathlessness; this is a technique that patients can learn and then use to treat themselves.

Some acupuncturists prefer to work with a patient only after the completion of conventional medical cancer therapy. Others will provide acupuncture and/or herbal therapy during active chemotherapy or radiation. Acupuncturists treat cancer patients based on an individualized assessment of the excesses and deficiencies of qi located in various meridians. In many cases of cancer-related symptoms, a qi deficiency is usually detected in the spleen or kidney meridians.

Prognosis/Possible Complications

The outlook varies by cell type and stage of the disease. In general, the prognosis is better for squamous cell cancers than for adenocarcinomas. Early detection is key to better chances of survival.

Following Up

Periodic follow-up is useful in helping to detect recurrence of the lung cancer or other smoking-related cancers. Frequent follow-up and rehabilitation for loss of lung function from cancer, surgery, or other treatment may be necessary.


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