What Is Lung Cancer?

Cancer, in any form, is the result of the mutation of healthy cells. This process can sometimes be prevented, but there are multiple factors that can trigger this mutation, including chemical exposure, environmental factors, and substance abuse. Lung cancer is the result of mutations that occur within or on the exterior tissue of the lungs.

Naturally, most cases of lung disease develop through inhalation of hazardous materials. Yet, even non-smokers, living their regular, day-to-day life, can develop this disease. Subsequently, lung cancer is now the most common form of cancer in the world, killing an estimated 1.8 million people in 2018. Still, most of the public is unaware of the full extent of the disease, the causes and risk factors, biomarkers, or that there are different types like non-small lung cancer and small cell lung cancer.

Learning and doing more research about this diagnosis, whether for yourself or a loved one, is the first step in taking control and fighting back.

Causes and Risk Factors of Lung-Related Cancer

When people think about the causes of lung cancer, their minds often jump to smoking cigarettes. Some non-smokers will even question their diagnosis. However, cigarettes are not the only cause of this cancer.

Exposure to a number of chemicals and hazardous manufacturing materials can cause mutations that trigger lung damage. This list includes common minerals that the United States used in the construction of buildings and products leading up to the 1980s, as well as radioactive materials that would not typically be used by the public. Some occupations at risk for harmful exposure include miners, steelworkers, powerplant employees, shipyard crews, longshore and harbor workers, railroad crews, plumbers, and first responders like firefighters to name a few.

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There’s a long list of chemicals and minerals to avoid, but the most common include:

This is an icon of radon being exposed near your home.


A radioactive gas that is found naturally in soil, radon is the second-highest cause of lung cancer after cigarettes. As an invisible, odorless, and tasteless gas, as many as one out of 15 homes in the U.S. is subject to a lethal amount of radon build-up. Radon is responsible for nearly 21,000 deaths from lung cancer each year.

This is an icon demonstrating an example of Hazardous Air Pollution (HAP).

Hazardous Chemicals and Air Pollutants

Similar to radon, many forms of airborne pollutants and different materials used in the construction of buildings can cause lung cancer.

These materials include, but are not limited to:

  • Arsenic
  • Asbestos
  • Cadmium
  • Chromium
  • Nickel
  • Petroleum
  • Uranium

Not all exposure happens in older buildings. There are nearly 200 toxic air pollutants that can lead to lung disease and cancer, including:

  • Carbon monoxide
  • Nitrogen dioxide
  • Smog
  • Sulfur dioxide

Each day, people are exposed to these contaminants. However, only lethal concentrations will lead to the development of cancer. When there is a significant concentration of one or more contaminants, it may be due to the negligence of a company or property owner. Talking with an oncologist and reviewing your personal history may help determine where your exposure occurred in order to develop a timeline.

What Does Lung Cancer Feel Like When it Starts?

Often, symptoms typically don’t appear until later stages, after cancer has spread from one lung to another. This makes it difficult to diagnose patients with stage 1 or stage 2 cancer. If you believe you were exposed to a hazardous chemical that could cause cancer, speak with your doctor and schedule an early cancer screening.

Symptoms can include:

The lungs don’t have as many nerve endings as other organs in the body, and people in the early stages of cancer may not experience pain. It’s important to look at your history and consider your risk of exposure. Some of the above symptoms may seem benign, but they can vary greatly based on the stage and type of cancer.

What are the Types?

While many consider lung cancer as a singular entity, there are actually multiple types and subtypes that may occur. Specialists have divided the disease into two main categories: small cell and non-small cell lung cancer. These two forms are based on the types of cells found in the biopsy.

This is an icon displaying the small cell lung cancer.

Small Cell Lung Cancer

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) makes up about 20 percent of diagnoses. This cell type is almost always caused by the carcinogens found in cigarettes. The common subtypes of SCLC include:

  • Combined small cell carcinoma
  • Small cell carcinoma

This is an icon displaying non-small cell lung cancer.

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Eighty percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer show signs of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). This form of cancer spreads and develops more slowly.

It has three primary subtypes:

  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Large cell carcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma

These are the most common subtypes of small cell and non-small cell cancer, but there are more. A doctor could potentially diagnose what type a patient has based on their symptoms and daily habits. However, after taking a biopsy and examining the patient’s tumor under a microscope, they could identify a rarer or more specific subtype.

Early Screening for Lung Cancer

By the time most people have developed symptoms, their cancer has already reached a later stage. Early screening plays an essential role in a patient’s recovery. Screening for lung cancer is quick, easy, and, in some cases, may prevent or reduce the spread of the disease.

Do you or a loved one qualify for early screening? To find out, speak with a doctor about your medical and personal history. You may have been exposed to a known carcinogen, and a doctor can help identify those risk factors.

Lung Cancer Stages

There are four primary stages. While there is some variation depending on the type and subtype, oncologists generally use stages 1, stage 2, stage 3, and stage 4 to determine how far the disease has spread and what treatments would work best. The staging process only occurs after a patient receives a positive diagnosis (i.e. test results indicate the presence of cancer).

Typically, oncologists and doctors use the TNM classification system:
T – Tumor – What is the size and location of the tumor?
N – Nodes – Has cancer spread to the lymph nodes?
M – Metastasis – Has cancer spread to other organs?

What Happens After you get Diagnosed with Lung Cancer?

After receiving a lung cancer prognosis, a non-smoker may feel confused or afraid and not know what to do next. After all, not all cases are caused by cigarettes. In many cases, it can develop as a result of exposure to hazardous materials that should never have been around in the first place. In this situation, the patient may be sick as a result of corporate negligence.

Ask your doctor to review all possible treatment options. They may have suggestions for additional emerging treatments, clinical trials, complementary therapies, or other methods to help improve your prognosis.

If you’re having trouble coping or otherwise need physical or mental care, your doctor can direct you to talk therapy, support groups, caregivers, hospice, and other resources. For more information on taking legal action and reaching a settlement, fill out a free case evaluation form.