Lung cancer is a mass or growth in the lung made up of cancer cells, but not all masses in the lung are caused by cancer. There are many different types of growths that can form in the lungs, and how they’re diagnosed and treated depends on what symptoms you’re having; where the growths are in the lung; and your age, general health, and risk factors for developing lung cancer.
Lung masses and growths generally fall under two categories:
- Benign growths (non-cancerous)
- Malignant growths (cancerous)
Below, we’ll discuss the different kinds of masses, growths, tumors, and nodules that can form in your lungs and what they might mean for your health.
What are benign lung nodules?
A nodule is a spot that shows up on an x-ray or CT scan of your lung. Nodules aren’t all that uncommon. In fact, they are seen on about one in every 500 chest x-rays. Nodules look like small, round growths of tissue surrounded by normal tissue. You could have one nodule or many nodules.
Your lung nodule is more likely to be benign (non-cancerous) if:
- You are under age 40
- You don’t smoke
- The nodule is small
- The nodule contains calcium
If doctors notice a nodule on an x-ray or CT scan of your lung, they will need to determine whether it’s a benign tumor or cancer. This is important, because early diagnosis and treatment of cancer can improve your chances of survival.
Benign lung nodules differ from malignant nodules in that they:
- Won’t spread to other parts of the body
- Can grow slowly, stop growing, or shrink
- Aren’t usually life threatening
- May not need to be removed or otherwise treated
Types of benign lung nodules
There are several different types of benign lung nodules.
Hamartomas are the most common type of benign lung nodule. They make up more than half of all benign lung tumors. Most of them are found in the outer edges of the lung tissue. They’re made up of excessive amounts of normal tissue like cartilage, fat, and muscle. They’re usually less than 4 centimeters in diameter, and they usually look like they’re coin shaped on an x-ray.
Bronchial adenomas are tumors that can grow on the mucus glands or ducts of the windpipe. They can also grow on the large airway of the lung. This type of benign tumor is also common.
Papillomas are a less common type of benign lung nodule. These grow in the bronchial tubes, and they can either be squamous or glandular. Squamous papillomas can be the result of the human papilloma virus (HPV). The cause of glandular papillomas isn’t known.
What are the symptoms of benign lung nodules?
Benign lung nodules and tumors don’t often cause symptoms, and they’re often found accidentally on an imaging test. If they do cause symptoms, they can cause:
- Shortness of breath
- Coughing for a long time
- Coughing up blood
What are the causes of benign lung nodules?
Doctors aren’t entirely sure what causes benign lung nodules and tumors. Non-cancerous lung nodules may be caused by several different conditions that cause inflammation or scarring, or they can be the result of a birth defect. Causes may include:
- An abscess
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Round pneumonia
- A lung cyst that you’re born with
How do doctors treat benign lung nodules?
In some cases, doctors will watch and wait to see what the benign nodule does. You may get multiple chest x-rays over several years to see if the nodule grows. If your nodule doesn’t show any changes over two years, it’s unlikely to be cancer. But if you’re having symptoms of lung cancer or have the risk factors for lung cancer, your doctor may choose to remove the nodule with surgery. Once a benign nodule is removed, you often won’t need any further treatment.
Malignant lung masses
In some cases, a nodule or mass in the lung is malignant (cancerous). If a nodule shows up on your x-ray or CT scan, there are certain characteristics your doctor will look for to determine whether it’s cancer. Malignant masses are often larger than benign nodules. Malignant masses are also more likely to show up in certain parts of your lung. If your doctor suspects your lung mass could be malignant, he or she may order diagnostic tests to be sure. These include tests like:
Needle biopsy, in which a doctor removes a small amount of the tumor with a needle and studies it
Bronchoscopy, in which a doctor inserts a thin tube with a camera on it through the windpipe, looks at the nodule, and takes a tissue sample
What causes malignant lung masses, and how are they treated?
Malignant masses are often caused by lung cancer, but they can also be caused by lymphoma or cancers that have spread from another organ. Types of lung cancer include:
If a lung nodule is found to be cancerous, it may be removed through surgery. Common surgical procedures that treat lung cancer include:
Segmentectomy and wedge resection surgery, in which the surgeon removes a small part of the lung
- Lobectomy, in which the surgeon removes one or more lobes of the lung
- Pneumonectomy, in which the surgeon removes one entire lung
Additional treatment for cancerous lung nodules may include therapies, such as:
- Chemotherapy, with drugs that destroy the cancer cells
- Radiation therapy, with high-energy beams that kill cells or shrink the cancerous cells
- Proton therapy, a pencil beam scanning technique that delivers a narrow proton beam to the tumor, killing the tumor precisely while keeping surrounding healthy tissue from being harmed
Learn more about lung cancer and how Beaumont can help with:
Discover your treatment options at Beaumont
If doctors have found a nodule or mass in your lung, or if you’re experiencing lung symptoms that worry you, Beaumont has a team of specialists who can help. Our Lung Cancer Multidisciplinary Clinic has specialists from fields across the medical spectrum who work together to find the most advanced treatments and the latest technology. Our lung cancer specialists are leaders in the field, so you can trust that Beaumont will help you find the most effective treatment plan for you.