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Lung cancer remains the deadliest of all cancers

According to the National Cancer Institute, lung cancer will claim the lives of more than 150,000 Americans before the end of 2011. In Canada, where the national population is considerably smaller than that of the U.S., lung cancer will still take a heavy toll, causing more than 20,000 deaths according to the Canadian Cancer Society. Meanwhile, Cancer Research UK reports that within in the United Kingdom lung cancer accounts for roughly 6 percent of all deaths, and 22 percent of all deaths from cancer.

Each of these figures illustrates the prevalence of lung cancer across the globe, and the deadly toll it takes on an annual basis. While many are quick to assume they will be immune to lung cancer if they simply avoid smoking tobacco, the disease is much more complex than that and understanding it could mean the difference between life and death.

What causes lung cancer?

While the NCI reports smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, that doesn't mean nonsmokers or those who quit smoking still aren't at risk. In fact, many additional factors can increase a person's risk of lung cancer.

Secondhand smoke has long been known to be very harmful, and no one, not even children, is immune to its effects. The American Cancer Society notes that, in the U.S. alone, roughly 3,000 nonsmoking adults will succumb to lung cancer each year because of secondhand smoke. Choosing not to smoke is a good decision, but being around smokers and breathing in their smoke could prove just as deadly as smoking. The less a person is exposed to tobacco smoke, the lower their risk for lung cancer.

Another risk factor for lung cancer is radon, a radioactive gas that cannot be seen, smelled or tasted. Radon forms in soil and rocks, and men and women who work in mines could be exposed to radon. Radon can also be found in homes when it pushes its way through cracks in floors or gaps around service pipes or in suspended floors. Testing a home for radon is inexpensive and won't take much time.

Additional causes of lung cancer include air pollution, asbestos and even age. Older people are more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer, as are those with a family history of lung cancer.

Does lung cancer have symptoms?

The deadliest form of cancer for men and women alike, lung cancer is perhaps so deadly because it does not often have many symptoms in its early stages. While some symptoms might manifest themselves in the early stages, most will wait until the cancer begins to grow before they make their presence felt.

As the cancer grows, the following symptoms might appear:

* a cough that continues to worsen or won't go away

* constant chest pain

* coughing up blood

* a voice that grows hoarse

* frequent infections of the lungs, including pneumonia

* constant feelings of fatigue

* unexplained weight loss

Each of these symptoms can occur even if a person does not have lung cancer. However, men and women who experience any of the above symptoms should consult their physicians immediately.

How is lung cancer diagnosed?

In many cases, individuals will experience one of the aforementioned symptoms of lung cancer and then visit their doctors. Such a visit should be made immediately, and men and women should expect certain tests to be performed upon visiting their doctor. In addition to ordering some blood work, a doctor will likely perform a physical exam to check for general signs of health and listen to breathing. During the physical, the doctor is likely to check for swollen lymph nodes, fluid in the lungs and a swollen liver.

A doctor will also order X-ray pictures of the chest to detect if there are any tumors or an abnormal fluid buildup. A CT scan, which takes pictures of the tissue inside the chest, will likely be taken as well. These pictures can show if there is a tumor, abnormal fluid or swollen lymph nodes.

When determining if a patient has lung cancer, a doctor will also enlist the help of a pathologist to study cell or tissue samples. These cells or tissues can be collected in a number of ways, and a doctor might order more than one test.

* Bronchoscopy: A thin, lighted tube is inserted through the nose or mouth into the lung, allowing a close exam of the lungs and the air passages that lead to them. A cell sample can be taken with a needle, brush or other tool.

* Sputum cytology: Sputum, or thick fluid, is coughed up from the lungs and then checked for cancer cells.

* Thoracentesis: A long needle is used to remove fluid called pleural fluid from the chest, and that fluid is then checked for cancer cells.

* Thoracoscopy: A surgeon makes several small incisions in the chest and back, then looks at the lungs and nearby tissue with a thin, lighted tube.

More information about lung cancer is available from the National Cancer Institute at www.cancer.gov.