Advance with MUSC Health

Lung Cancer: The Basics You Need to Know

Advance With MUSC Health
December 06, 2023
Dr. Nichole Tanner, lung cancer pulmonologist, in front of a computer

Who’s at risk of getting lung cancer, and what are the symptoms? How is it diagnosed? What treatments are there?

Nichole Tanner, M.D., MSCR 
Dr. Nichole Tanner

Addressing these concerns and more is Dr. Nichole Tanner, a lung cancer pulmonologist and co-director of the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center Lung Cancer Screening Program. Her research and clinical interests focus on many aspects of lung cancer screening, including implementation, disparities, adherence, shared decision making and tobacco treatment. Other focuses of research include pulmonary nodule evaluation and the staging and diagnosis of lung cancer.

How common is lung cancer?

Lung cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in the United States and in the world.

What is the prognosis — is lung cancer deadly?

Each year in the U.S., lung cancer kills more Americans than breast, prostate and colon cancer combined. This is because people don't usually develop symptoms until the cancer has spread and is more difficult to treat and cure. What are the symptoms of lung cancer? Are there signs of lung cancer?

As above, lung cancer does not usually cause symptoms until it has spread.

Lung cancer symptoms may include:

  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing up blood
  • New hoarseness
  • Loss of voice

What are the causes and risk factors of lung cancer?

The main cause of lung cancer is currently or formerly smoking cigarettes.

Other lung cancer risk factors may include:

  • A family history of cancer
  • Underlying lung disease, such as:
    •  Emphysema
    • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Prior radiation treatment to the chest
  • Exposures, including:
    • Asbestos
    • Radon
    • Secondhand smoke

How is lung cancer diagnosed?

Lung cancer is usually first suspected on an imaging study of the chest, such as a chest X-ray or CT scan, that is done by a medical professional when someone has symptoms of lung cancer or can be found incidentally when someone has an imaging study done for another reason. To confirm a lung cancer diagnosis, a sample of tissue (also called a biopsy) is needed from either the suspicious area in the lung or other areas where the images suggest the cancer may have spread. A biopsy of the lung can be done with the assistance of a CT scan, through a bronchoscopy (an outpatient procedure in which a scope with a camera and a light is used to see inside the airways of the lung) or surgery.

Are there different types of lung cancer, and are some more serious than others?

There are different types of lung cancer that are determined by what is seen on special tests done on the biopsy specimens. Some lung cancers are more aggressive than others.

Lung cancers and a variety of other thoracic cancers that we treat include:

  • Non-small cell lung cancer (84% of lung cancer diagnoses)
  • Small cell lung cancer
  • Thymus cancer, which forms in the thymus gland, where T-cells mature
  • Esophageal cancer and Barrett's esophagus
  • Chest wall and mediastinal tumors
  • Pleural cancer like mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer that affects the tissues lining your chest

What are the treatment options for lung cancer, how effective are they, and is lung cancer curable?

Treatment for lung cancer depends on the stage of the lung cancer. The doctors will determine the stage of lung cancer through additional scans and biopsies if needed. Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapies, immunotherapies, and combinations of all of these.

The best chance for a cure is to find lung cancer in its earlier stages when it has yet to spread, and the person is eligible for surgery to cure it. Many of the combinations of treatments available for more advanced diseases are targeted to individual mutations that might be found in a person's tumor. These targeted therapies are part of precision oncology and have improved outcomes for lung cancer. 

Why go to MUSC Health Hollings Cancer Center for lung cancer care?

At the MUSC Health Hollings Cancer Center, we have a comprehensive lung cancer program focused on the entire spectrum of lung cancer diagnostics, treatment and care. From early detection through a comprehensive lung cancer screening program to the most advanced diagnostic technology and treatment algorithms, our group works together across disciplines to deliver the most state-of-the-art lung cancer care. 

As a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, the Hollings Cancer Center supports our multidisciplinary group that includes members from pulmonary medicine, thoracic surgery, medical oncology, radiation oncology, radiology and tobacco treatment. We deliver guideline-consistent care and have access to the latest research trials.

Learn more about Hollings' Lung and Thoracic Cancer Care Team

Nichole T. Tanner, MD, MSCR is an associate professor of medicine and co-director of the Lung Cancer Screening Program at the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, Allergy and Sleep Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina.