Lung cancer, like all other cancers, is caused by a malfunction in the cells of the body which for whatever reason, embark on uncontrolled replication and growth. Cells undergo a cycle of birth and death many millions of times throughout the life of a person, but this is done in a controlled cycle which replaces old cells with new ones. When cancer strikes, the unchecked production of new cells leads to growths, known as tumors, and these physically interfere in the function of the organs and the processes of healthy, normal life.
A tumor can be benign or malign, and usually when we refer to a “cancer” we are using this term to refer to a malignant growth. Malignant or cancerous tumors are aggressive and capable of spreading, or metastasising, to other parts of the body so that further tumors occur, further interfering in the delicate balance of the body. Benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body and can usually be removed without further complication to the life and health of the patient.
When cancer appears in the lungs it will be because it has either originated there (a primary tumor) or it has spread to the lungs from another part of the body. Typically, lung cancer will have originated or will spread to the adrenal glands, brain, liver or bones, though treatment must take into consideration the entire health of the patient as cancer cells are capable of spreading widely from any source within the body once unchecked cell replication has started.
Lung cancer is typically referred to as a tumor which has originated within the lungs; cancer which has originated from elsewhere and spread to the lungs is usually referred to as “metastatic cancer” rather than lung cancer.
The first step in assessing treatment is to positively diagnose cancer; in other words that the tumor is malignant. There are a variety of tests which can be carried out, and there are usually a range of tests rather any one single diagnostic test which is utilized. Post-diagnosis involves a process known as “staging”; this is where the extent and seriousness of the disease is assessed and this determines the treatment regime which will be followed by the medical team and the patient.
Treatment may be non-invasive such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which is used in advance stages of the disease and attempts to either reduce the size and extent of the tumor so it becomes practical to remove it (known as a resection), or acts as a safety measure after a surgical removal to ensure that any cancerous cells in the lymphatic system or bloodstream are killed so they cannot gain a purchase elsewhere in the body (which may result in a further recurrence of the cancer elsewhere in the body).
Surgical treatment may involve a major operation to open the chest cavity to gain access to the lungs and affected parts of the body, however the trend has been to develop minimally invasive techniques which do not require major surgery with its attendant risks and post-operative recuperation issues.
Techniques such as VATS, involves the making of small incisions into the side or rear of the chest in order to insert specialist video capture equipment which is used to provide a highly detailed image on a video screen. This gives the surgeon a real-time and highly detailed video feed which is used to guide the surgeon in the removal of the affected cancerous areas. The shock, pain and post-operative issues are minimalized for the patient, though it requires an extremely skilled surgeon to perform the operation.