About Lung Cancer and Its Symptoms

Your Lungs

A closer look at the lungs and respiratory system.

The lungs bring oxygen into the body when you breathe in and take out carbon dioxide when you breathe out. Each lung has sections called lobes. The left lung has two lobes. The right lung, which is slightly larger, has three. A thin membrane called the pleura surrounds the lungs. Two tubes called bronchi lead from the trachea (windpipe) to the right and left lungs. Small tubes called bronchioles and tiny air sacs called alveoli make up the inside of the lungs. Lung cancer can develop in any part of the lung.

Types of Lung Cancer

Non-small Cell Lung Cancer

The most common type of lung cancer diagnosed in the United States — and seen at Roswell Park — is non-small cell lung cancer. It begins when epithelial cells, which form the lining of the lungs, become abnormal and start to grow uncontrollably.

There are three main types of non-small cell lung cancer, and the cancer cells of each type grow and spread in different ways. The types of lung cancer are named for the kinds of cells found in the cancer and how the cells look under a microscope.

  • Adenocarcinoma: Begins in cells that line the alveoli, which exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide near the outer walls of the lungs.
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma: Begins in cells that line the bronchial tubes in the center of the lungs.
  • Large Cell Carcinoma: Also called undifferentiated lung cancer, is the name for about 5 percent of non-small cell lung cancers that do not belong to either of the first two types.

Other less common types of non-small cell lung cancer are:

  • Pleomorphic: Occurring in various distinct forms. In terms of cells, having variation in the size and shape of cells or their nuclei.
  • Carcinoid Tumor: An abnormal mass of tissue that results when cells divide more than they should or do not die when they should. Tumors may be benign (not cancer), or malignant (cancer). 
  • Unclassified carcinoma

Small Cell Lung Cancer

Small cell lung cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the lung. There are two types of small cell lung cancer:

  • Small cell carcinoma (oat cell cancer)
  • Combined small cell carcinoma

Malignant Mesothelioma

Malignant mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer in which malignant cells are found in the lining of the chest or abdomen. Exposure to airborne asbestos particles increases one's risk of developing malignant mesothelioma.

Pancoast Tumor/Superior Sulcus Tumor

Pancoast tumor is a rare form of lung cancer that arises in the upper portion (apex) of either the right or the left lung and interferes with the surrounding structures — the ribs, the lining of the chest cavity (parietal pleural), the spine, nerves (brachial plexus or sympathetic chain) and blood vessels.

These tumors were previously thought to be unresectable, but advances in radiation therapy and surgical techniques have greatly improved outcomes for patients. However, treatment of these rare tumors is complex and requires a multi-disciplinary approach from various physicians specializing in thoracic surgery, medical oncology and radiation medicine. At Roswell Park, we are proud to offer the excellence in multidisciplinary thoracic surgical care necessary for treating these tumors.

Lung Cancer Symptoms

An aggressive and insidious disease, lung cancer does not have many early warning signs, but as the cancer grows, common symptoms do occur. Individuals, especially smokers, often dismiss, ignore or attribute symptoms to conditions such as the flu or a cold.

Common symptoms:

  • Cough that gets worse or does not go away
  • Breathing trouble, such as shortness of breath
  • Constant chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Hoarse voice
  • Frequent lung infections, such as pneumonia
  • Feeling very tired all the time
  • Weight loss with no known cause

Symptoms that may indicate that cancer has spread:

  • Pain in bones such as the back, ribs, spine, or shoulder blades
  • New headaches
  • New dizziness or loss of balance
  • Vision changes
  • Nausea / vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Lumps in neck region