Lung cancer is a common malignant tumour, with around 48,500 cases diagnosed in the UK each year.
It is the third most common malignancy in the UK and is the leading cause of cancer-related death. Smoking is the most important aetiological factor, implicated in upwards of 80% of cases.
It is categorised by the underlying cell type:
Management depends on the subtype, stage at diagnosis and patient co-morbidities. Broadly the options include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgical resection.
Figures from Cancer Research UK (last accessed Nov 2021).
Smoking is by far the most important aetiological factor. Exposure to other environmental agents can also increase the risk of developing lung cancer.
Tobacco smoking is thought to be the cause of lung cancer in 80-90% of cases. Differences in gender mean women are somewhat less susceptible.
The effects of smoking remain long after cessation - the relative risk remains around two times that of a non-smoker at 30 years post-cessation.
Asbestos, a fibrous building material, is perhaps the best-known carcinogen aside from tobacco. Unfortunately, Britain spent years as one of the largest importers of the material. Despite its use being illegal for decades in the UK, cases of asbestos-related disease are still seen as many of its effects appear after a lag.
Though more strongly associated with mesothelioma, asbestos is linked with adenocarcinoma of the lung. Tobacco and asbestos exposure act synergistically increasing the risk of cancer multiple times.
Radon gas, released from naturally occurring uranium, is also a recognised cause of lung cancer.
Lung cancers are divided by the cell type responsible, two broad categories exist, non-small cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC) and small cell lung carcinoma (SCLC).
Non-small cell lung cancer account for around 80-85% of lung cancers. Changing trends in incidence is a reflection of the timing of countries smoking epidemics.
Adenocarcinoma is now the most common form of lung cancer (around 38%). It is a cancer of the mucus-secreting cells.
Its incidence relative to other forms of lung cancer has shown an increase. It also appears proportionally more in non-smokers than squamous cell carcinoma. Smoking and asbestos exposure are both risk factors.
Adenocarcinoma tends to occur in lung peripheries.
2. Squamous cell
Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common form of lung cancer (around 20%). Typically occurring in the central parts of the lungs, it can present with pneumonia secondary to an obstructed bronchus.
Smoking is the most common cause. Metastases tend to occur late and histopathology classically shows keratin.
3. Large cell
These are undifferentiated neoplasms accounting for around 5% of lung cancers. They tend to metastasise early.
SCLC accounts for around 15-20% of lung cancers and is considered separately due its fast doubling time, aggressive nature and early metastasis. SCLC is a cancer of the APUD cells, a neuroendocrine cell found in the lungs. It occurs almost exclusively in smokers.
It has an extremely poor prognosis, by the time of diagnosis curative therapy is rarely possible. SCLCs are commonly associated with paraneoplastic syndromes.
Lung cancer is frequently asymptomatic. When symptomatic, cough, malaise and weight loss predominate.
It may also present with haemoptysis, features of superior vena cava obstruction (SVCO) or a paraneoplastic syndrome (see chapter below). A higher index of suspicion is necessary for patients with a history of smoking.
A tumour may cause compression of the superior vena cava. This causes engorgement of vessels in the neck and face, shortness of breath and a ‘fullness’ of the head.
See our SVCO notes for more information.
This is a tumour of the pulmonary apex. Their location means local spread may affect the:
Pancoast tumours are known to cause:
Metastasis may cause a variety of clinical features:
Paraneoplastic syndromes refer to remote effects of tumours unrelated to mass effect, invasion or metastasis.
Hypercalcaemia may occur in lung cancers due to:
Clinical manifestations of hypercalcaemia are often remembered by “stones, bones, groans, thrones, and psychiatric moans”. This refers to renal calculi, bone pain, abdominal pain, polyuria and signs of altered mental status. Hypercalcaemia is common in lung carcinoma, seen in approximately 50% of patients with squamous cell carcinoma, 20% of adenocarcinoma and 15% of small cell carcinoma.
See our Hypercalcaemia notes for more details.
The syndrome of inappropriate anti-diuretic hormone (SIADH) is seen in around 10% of patients with SCLC. Symptoms are those of hyponatraemia and in extreme cases, cerebral oedema may occur.
See our SIADH notes for more details.
Cushing’s syndrome is caused by exposure to high levels of glucocorticoids. In rare cases, lung cancers produce ectopic ACTH driving an increase in glucocorticoids.
See our Cushing's syndrome notes for more details.
This syndrome is caused by antibodies to voltage-gated calcium channels. It is seen in 1-3% of SCLC. It is characterised by both proximal and ocular muscle weakness.
This syndrome is characterised by clubbing and periostitis. It features a symmetrical, painful arthropathy affecting the distal joints.
Patients with suspected lung cancer require two-week wait referral for further review.
NICE guidelines (NG 12): Suspected cancer: recognition and referral (published 2015, updated Jan 2021, last accessed Nov 2021) offer advice on referral for suspected malignancy. They advise two-week wait referral in patients with:
Patients with evidence of SVCO or stridor require an urgent referral and emergency admission to hospital for further review.
Consider urgent CXR (within 2 weeks) in those aged over 40 with:
Offer an urgent CXR (within 2 weeks) in those aged over 40 with two of the following or have ever smoked and have one of the following:
Investigations look for evidence of a primary lung cancer, this involves imaging and tissue/cell sampling.
It is necessary to identify the cell type, the extent of invasion, nodal involvement and any metastasis.
A routine blood screen should be ordered in all patients. Deranged liver function tests (LFTs) should prompt suspicion of liver metastasis. Calcium (measured in the bone profile) can be elevated in patients with malignant hypercalcaemia or bony metastasis.
Staging helps guide management as well as providing prognostic information.
NSCLC is staged using the tumour node metastasis (TMN) staging system (based upon IASLC 8th Edition Lung Cancer TNM staging guidelines). SCLC may also be staged this way, though the VALSG staging system (see chapter below) may be used instead/in conjunction with it.
SCLC may be staged in a more simple two stage system named VALSG staging. It is felt this better reflects the limited opportunities for treatment with curative intent.
Limited disease: tumour not spread beyond hemithorax, regional nodes that may be treated with single radiotherapy field.
Extensive disease: tumour spread beyond hemithorax or extensively through the hemithorax, distant metastasis, malignant effusions or contralateral hilar/supraclavicular involvement.
Management is guided primarily by the cancers cell type, staging and the patients performance status.
Care is guided by an appropriate MDT. Patients will require help and support coming to terms with their diagnosis and to understand, and best choose from, the treatment options available to them.
As a student there are a number of key management options to be aware of:
Surgical resection (normally lobectomy) is the treatment of choice in those where it is potentially curative (e.g. stage I-II). Radical radiotherapy can be used where surgery is not suitable or declined.
Adjuvant chemotherapy is used in combination with surgery or given as a palliative therapy to improve survival in more advanced disease. SACTs (as described above) are often used in non-squamous NSCLC.
Surgical resection is only an option in early disease, appropriate in < 5% of cases. In T1/2a N0 M0 disease surgery with curative intent may be utilised.
Generally, treatment consists of chemotherapy (often cisplatin-based) and/or radiotherapy with the goal of extending survival and reducing troublesome symptoms.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in the UK.
In the UK the overall survival is (figures from Cancer Research UK):
Prognosis is highly dependent on age and stage at time of diagnosis. Almost half survive 5-years if aged 15-39 whilst just 5 in 100 of those over 80 survive that long. When diagnosed at the earliest stage 88% survive one-year or more compared with 19% diagnosed at the latest stage.
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