Lung graphic with leaves

19 Oct 2023

Understanding Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK, with nearly 50,000 people diagnosed with it each year.


What is lung cancer?

There are two main types of primary lung cancer. These are:

  • non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC);
  • small cell lung cancer (SCLC).

NSCLC is the most common lung cancer, and there are three main types:

  • Adenocarcinoma: this type develops from cells that make mucus and is more often found in the outer area of the lung.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: this type is less common and develops in the cells that line the airways (usually in the airways in the centre of the lungs).
  • Large cell lung cancer: this is a very uncommon type that usually starts in the centre of the lungs.

There is also cancer that affects the lining that covers the lungs (called the pleura). This is called pleural mesothelioma.

Sometimes cancer spreads to the lungs from somewhere else in the body. This is called lung metastases or secondary lung cancer.


The main cause of lung cancer

Smoking tobacco is the cause of most lung cancers and the biggest risk factor. This includes smoking cigarettes, cigars and pipes. The more you smoke, the bigger your risk.

90% of people who get lung cancer are smokers or ex-smokers. Starting smoking at a younger age increases the risk. In the UK, 72% of lung cancer cases are caused by smoking.

Smoking increases your risk of heart disease, stroke and developing new cancers. It can also make certain late effects of treatment worse, such as bladder and bowel problems.

People who do not smoke can also get lung cancer, but their risk is much lower. About 10% of people who get lung cancer have never smoked.

If you smoke, stopping is the healthiest decision you can make. It can reduce the side effects of some treatments and it can help you to heal faster after surgery.

Giving up smoking is not easy, but it can be done. Using a stop smoking treatment with help from an NHS support service or your GP gives you the best chance of success.

There are support groups available for people trying to quit, as well as one-to-one support. Ask your GP for advice or contact one of the national stop smoking services.

However long you have been smoking, it is always worth quitting. When you stop smoking, the risk of lung cancer gets lower over time. After 12 years of not smoking, the risk of getting lung cancer is about 70% lower than it is for those who still smoke. After about 15 years, it is almost the same as a non-smoker.


Signs and symptoms of lung cancer

Lung cancer may not always have symptoms early on. In fact, it does not usually cause noticeable symptoms until it's spread through the lungs or into other parts of the body.

The symptoms of lung cancer can include:

  • a cough for 3 weeks or more;
  • a change in a cough you have had for a long time;
  • a chest infection that does not get better, or repeated chest infections;
  • feeling breathless and wheezy for no reason;
  • coughing up blood;
  • chest or shoulder pain that does not get better;
  • a hoarse voice for 3 weeks or more.

If you have any of these symptoms, it is important to get them checked by your GP.


Getting support

Everyone has their own way of dealing with illness and the different emotions they experience. You may find it helpful to talk things over with family and friends or your doctor or nurse.