Lung Cancer: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatments | MedStar Health

As the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women, lung cancer often takes many years to develop and is difficult to detect at an early stage when it has a greater potential for cure. More Americans die each year from lung cancer than from breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers combined.

The lungs are two sponge-like organs found in the chest that bring air in and out of the body. The lungs take in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide gas. The lining around the lungs, called the pleura, helps to protect the lungs and allows them to move during breathing. The windpipe (trachea) brings air down into the lungs. It divides into tubes called bronchi, which divide into smaller branches called bronchioles. At the end of these small branches are tiny sacs known as alveoli.

Most lung cancers start in the lining of the bronchi, but they can also begin in other areas, such as the trachea, bronchioles, or alveoli. As the cancer grows, cancerous cells can break away and spread to other parts of the body in a process called metastasis. Lung cancer is a life-threatening disease because it often spreads in this way before it is detected.

However, up to 80 percent of lung cancers are curable if caught early, and researchers like ours are working on new tests to make this possible.

We also offer screenings for longtime smokers and continue to improve treatment for the disease, including precisely targeted radiation, minimally invasive procedures, and therapies that target specific tumor characteristics.

Types of lung cancer

Two main types of lung cancer exist, named for how the cells appear under a microscope: small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). A third type, lung carcinoid tumors, is much rarer. Treatment options depend in part on which kind you have.

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)

About 80 percent of lung cancers are non-small cell lung cancer, which usually grows and spreads to other parts of the body more slowly than small cell lung cancer. The main subtypes of NSCLC are:

  • Adenocarcinoma: Develops in epithelial tissue cells, often in an outer area of the lung

  • Squamous cell (epidermoid) carcinoma: Usually found in the center of the lung next to an air tube (bronchus)

  • Large cell (undifferentiated) carcinoma: Can occur in any part of the lung and tends to grow and spread the fastest

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC)

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) represents about 10 to 15 percent of cases and is fast-growing, typically found in both lungs, and usually symptom-less until it reaches later stages. It is almost always associated with smoking and often spreads before it’s found. The two sub-types of SCLC are:

  • Small cell carcinoma (oat cell cancer)

  • Combined small cell carcinoma (mixed small cell/non-small cell carcinoma)

Mixed small cell/large cell cancer

This type of cancer occurs when the cancer has features of both small and non-small cell lung cancer.

Lung carcinoid tumors

In addition to the two major types, there are other lung tumors. Lung carcinoid tumors are a third type of lung cancer, representing fewer than 5 percent of cases. Most of the tumors do not spread quickly and can be treated with surgery.

Metastasized cancer in the lungs

Cancer can spread (metastasize) to the lungs from other parts of the body, through the bloodstream, or lymphatic system. Even though the cancer is now found in the lungs, it’s still classified and treated based on where it started.

Screening and prevention

Low-dose CT scan technology can catch lung cancer early, when it is most treatable. This quick, non-invasive scan can provide valuable—and even lifesaving—information. It is often covered by insurance.

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But, as with most health issues, prevention is the best strategy. And lung cancer is among the most preventable of cancer types.

The American Cancer Society estimates that tobacco usage is responsible for more than 75 percent of lung cancer deaths, which makes quitting smoking the single most important factor in decreasing the risk.

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Lung cancer treatments

lung cancer care medstar health

MedStar Health welcomes the opportunity to help you with an initial diagnosis or provide a second opinion for lung cancer.

Our program features:

  • Experienced team: The best lung cancer care comes from highly experienced and skilled specialists working together, with a full range of services, tools, and therapies. Our lung cancer team meets weekly to discuss new cases and develop individualized treatment plans, based on sophisticated treatments, the latest technology, and your preferences. Team members include:

    • Interventional pulmonologists

    • Lung pathologists

    • Medical oncologists

    • Pulmonologists

    • Radiation oncologists

    • Radiologists

    • Thoracic surgeons

  • Top technology and procedures- We offer the latest tools and techniques, including:

    • Proton Beam Therapy

    • Low-dose computed tomography (CT) screening

    • Advanced diagnostic tools, like electromagnetic navigation bronchoscopy (superDimension), endobronchial ultrasound (EBUS), and endoscopic esophageal ultrasound

    • Auris Health’s Monarch™ Platform includes a flexible robotic endoscope that doctors use to navigate deep into the lungs and obtain tissue samples for biopsy to determine if lung disease or cancer is present.
    • Ion™ robotic-assisted brochoscopic biopsy: an innovative minimally invasive technology allows your physician to reach all segments of the lung, including hard-to-reach and very small nodules in the periphery. Ion bronchoscopic biopsies are advanced because they offer unparalleled:
      • Reach: its ultra-thin catheter and integrated vision probe provide the physician direct access and visibility into all parts of the lungs.
      • Precision: the shape-sensing technology provides precise location and shape information throughout the biopsy process. The system holds the catheter in place for precise placement of biopsy tools.
      • Flexibility: the catheter can move 180° in all directions with a highly flexible biopsy probe.
    • Precisely targeted CyberKnife radiation

    • Minimally invasive surgery

    • Interventional pulmonology

    • Genetic analysis of tumors and targeted therapy

    • Research and clinical studies: Our doctors are involved with the latest research and offer clinical trials to appropriate patients across our network. One of our studies substitutes CyberKnife radiation for the surgical treatment of the main type

    • Patient focus: We provide a range of support, including physical therapists, nutritionists, and a nurse navigator to help guide you through treatment. Whenever possible, we provide care as close as possible to your home or office

Advanced diagnostic tools

Our providers

Oncologist giving IV Drip Treatment to Cancer Patient

Expert oncology care

Getting the care you need starts with seeing one of our oncologists.


Lung cancer services are provided at a variety of locations convenient to where you live and work.