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Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in one or both lungs. These cells can multiply rapidly and turn into tumors that interfere with the function of the lungs and, eventually, spread to other parts of the body.

Lung cancer is the second most common kind of cancer diagnosed in the United States, and accounts for nearly a third of all cancer deaths. Most people who get lung cancer were cigarette smokers, but non-smokers get it too. Exposure to radon, asbestos, and secondhand smoke are also risk factors. In some cases, there is no known cause.

One of the challenging aspects of lung cancer is that it may be years before symptoms emerge. By the time it's diagnosed, about half the patients have cancer that's already spread outside the lungs. 

How the Lungs Work

The lung's job is to remove carbon dioxide from the blood and replace it with oxygen. It acts like a pump with every breath you take. The air you breathe comes in through your nose or mouth, and passes though your trachea, or windpipe, into the lungs through two tubes called main stem bronchi. One of the tubes goes to the right lung and the other one to the left lung.

In the lungs, each of the main stem bronchi divide into smaller tubes, called bronchi, and then into even smaller tubes called bronchioles. The bronchioles end in tiny air sacs called alveoli where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide — the gases you breathe — takes place. There are three sections of lung or lobes on the right side of the chest and two sections on the left side.

Types of Lung Cancer

Cancers that begin in the lungs are divided into two major types — small cell lung cancer and non-small cell cancer. The two types are distinguished by how the cancer cells look under a microscope. Each type of lung cancer grows and spreads differently and calls for different treatment.

Non-small cell lung cancer is more common and generally grows more slowly. There are four main types of this cancer. They are named for the cells in which the cancer develops: squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, bronchoalveolar carcinoma and large cell carcinoma.

Small cell lung cancer, sometimes called oat cell cancer, is less common. This type of lung cancer grows more quickly and is more likely to spread to other organs.

Our Approach to Lung Cancer

UCSF's highly experienced thoracic surgeons and thoracic oncologists provide state-of-the-art care for lung cancer. Working with specialists in radiation oncology, pulmonology, pathology and radiology, we offer each patient a precise diagnosis and a tailored treatment plan.

Our thoracic surgery team helped pioneer minimally invasive lung surgery, first with video-assisted surgery and now with robotic surgery. For patients, this translates to shorter hospital stays, less pain and faster recoveries when compared to traditional procedures. We have established a reputation for accepting complex, challenging cases.

Awards & recognition

  • usnews-neurology

    Best hospital in Northern California

  • Best in Northern California in cancer care

  • usnews-pulmonology

    Best in Northern California in pulmonology & lung surgery

  • Rated high-performing hospital for lung cancer surgery

UCSF Health medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your provider.