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In the United States, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death. And while it’s important to take steps to prevent lung cancer — like quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke — early diagnosis should also be a goal.
Lung cancer patients have several treatment options that offer hope for recovery. In fact, a recent study published in The Annals of Thoracic Surgery found that the number of patients who receive treatment and survive early-stage lung cancer has increased in recent years.
Lung Cancer vs Early-Stage Lung Cancer
Being told you have early-stage lung cancer can feel both overwhelming and frightening. The good news is that advances are being made every day in lung cancer treatments, which early-stage treatments seeing the best outcomes.
Treatments for lung cancer are getting better and survival rates are improving. Many of the advances in treating lung cancer have happened in recent years. It’s worth noting that while you may hear stories about people who battled the same cancer, often those experiences and outcomes will be very different and won’t necessarily mirror your own.
So what does it mean to have early-stage lung cancer and which stages are considered early? Generally speaking, the differences often come down to which type of lung cancer you have and whether or not surgery is an option for a particular case.
Stages of Lung Cancer
Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer, making up around 85% of cases. Stages that are considered operable, that is, “early-stage lung cancers,” include:
- Stage 0
- Stage I
- Stage II
- Stage IIIA
Small cell lung cancer is the second-most common type of lung cancer. Surgery is not commonly considered for these cancers, which fall into one of two categories:
- Limited stage
- Extensive stage
Lung Cancer Symptoms
When still in earlier stages, lung cancer often does not present with easily recognizable symptoms. Typically, it’s found in routine screenings or scans done for unrelated reasons. However, when there are symptoms present, they may include:
- Chronic cough
- Coughing up blood
- Generally feeling unwell
- Shortness of breath
There are have changes in how symptoms of lung cancer present in recent years. Much like heart disease, symptoms also may occur differently in men versus women.
Adenocarcinoma is a type of cancer more commonly affecting women, young adults and non-smokers. In these cases, tumors tend to grow in the outer regions of the lungs away from large airways. Because of this, people with these cancers may not have commonly thought of symptoms such as coughing. Instead, people with these cancers will report vague symptoms such as a lower tolerance for exercise.
How Is Lung Cancer Diagnosed?
Lung cancer diagnosis varies from person to person, and your medical team chooses tests based on several factors including:
- Findings from physical exam
- Medical history
- Symptoms present
Your doctor may order imaging tests including CT, PET or bone scans. These tests take pictures of the inside of your body, allowing the doctor to identify lung cancer, see whether cancer has spread, track treatment progress or monitor whether cancer has returned.
If your doctor sees something on the scan they think should be investigated further, there are several procedures that may order to study tissue or fluid around the lungs.
These procedures allow the doctor to remove cells from the body and study them under a microscope to determine whether they are cancerous. These procedures may include:
- Bronchoscopy biopsy
- Endobronchial ultrasound (EBUS)
- Endoscopic esophageal ultrasound (EUS)
- Fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy
- Mediastinoscopy and mediastinotomy
- Open biopsy
- Sputum cytology
- Thoracoscopy or video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) biopsy
Improved Treatment Options
The increase in lung cancer survival is linked to the fact that better treatment options are more easily available today. For example, surgical procedures are less invasive than they used to be. Radiation therapy has improved. Doctors frequently use stereotactic body radiation therapy now, a procedure that allows them to locate and treat tumors more precisely while avoiding surrounding healthy tissue.
If you’ve been diagnosed with early-stage lung cancer, don’t hesitate to start a conversation about treatment. Talk to your doctor about the options that may be best for you. Some of the procedures he or she may discuss include:
- Chemotherapy: Special medicines that help shrink or kill the cancer
- Radiation therapy: High-energy rays that can eliminate the cancer
- Surgery: An operation to remove cancer tissue
- Targeted therapy: Drugs (either pills or medicine administered in your veins) that can block the growth and progress of cancer cells
Coping With a Cancer Diagnosis
With a cancer diagnosis comes a new set of physical and mental challenges. Living with symptoms, treatments and side effects can sometimes become a full-time job as your priorities shift and your normal life gets put on hold.
Luckily, you don't have to face it alone. When it comes to preparing yourself and your loved ones with the reality of your diagnosis, there are very few right and wrong answers, only personal choices you can make to try and strike a balance of comfort for you and your family, even when comfort seems impossible.
Coping with stress and depression is one of the greatest difficulties you may face as you make your way through treatment. Some strategies to ease anxiety include the following:
Get Plenty of Sleep
Rest is vital to a full recovery. Your body needs time to recover after everything you’re going through.
Keep a Journal
You may find it difficult to talk to others about your battle with cancer. Writing down your thoughts is a great way to get those frustrations out of your head.
Make Time to Relax
Taking a little time for yourself will help clear your mind and calm those racing thoughts. Consciously set aside time to unwind. Read a book, take a bath or schedule a spa day. Give yourself something to look forward to.
Practice Deep Breathing
Finding a moment to simply take a few deep breaths will instantly help you unwind and organize your thoughts.
One of the easiest ways to get out of your head is to leave the house for a couple hours and be active. Join a group, meet up with a friend or just walk around the block.
Talk to a Friend
Sometimes the quickest way to relieve stress is to just vent. Voicing your concerns or struggles aloud can provide clarity and peace.
Consider Outreach Options
Part of your cancer care team at most AdventHealth campuses includes compassionate, skilled social workers who specialize in providing illness adjustment counseling for both patients and family members.
Sometimes just talking things over with a professional can help alleviate anxiety — especially with the anxiety and emotional moments that can come with diagnosis and treatment.
Specialists can have a big impact in helping not just patients, but the entire family, cope with cancer.
Early Intervention is Key
It’s essential to maintain a relationship with a primary care provider you trust. When you see a doctor regularly and stay up to date on age-appropriate screenings, your care providers are much more likely to catch potential problems before they progress.
If you don’t already have a primary care provider, you can use our convenient online physician finder to find one near you.
Learn more about AdventHealth’s comprehensive and compassionate cancer care services here.