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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

Adenocarcinoma of the lung is a type of lung cancer. It occurs when abnormal lung cells multiply out of control and form a tumor. Eventually, tumor cells can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body including the

  • lymph nodes around and between the lungs

  • liver

  • bones

  • adrenal glands

  • brain.

Compared with other types of lung cancer, adenocarcinoma is more likely to be contained in one area. If it is truly localized, it may respond to treatment better than other lung cancers.

Adenocarcinoma is the most common form of lung cancer. It's generally found in smokers. However, it is the most common type of lung cancer in nonsmokers. It is also the most common form of lung cancer in women and people younger than 45.

As with other forms of lung cancer, your risk of adenocarcinoma increases if you

  • smoke. Smoking cigarettes is by far the leading risk factor for lung cancer. In fact, cigarette smokers are 13 times more likely to develop lung cancer than nonsmokers. Cigar and pipe smoking are almost as likely to cause lung cancer as cigarette smoking.

  • breathe tobacco smoke. Nonsmokers who inhale fumes from cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoking have an increased risk of lung cancer.

  • are exposed to radon gas. Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas formed in the ground. It seeps into the lower floors of homes and other buildings and can contaminate drinking water. Radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer. It's not clear whether elevated radon levels contribute to lung cancer in nonsmokers. But radon exposure does contribute to increased rates of lung cancer in smokers and in people who regularly breathe high amounts of the gas (miners, for example). You can test radon levels in your home with a radon testing kit.

  • are exposed to asbestos. Asbestos is a mineral used in insulation, fireproofing materials, floor and ceiling tiles, automobile brake linings, and other products. People exposed to asbestos on the job (miners, construction workers, shipyard workers, and some auto mechanics) have a higher-than-normal risk of lung cancer. People who live or work in buildings with asbestos-containing materials that are deteriorating also have an increased risk of lung cancer. In addition to having a higher risk of adenocarcinoma, people who have been exposed to asbestos have a greater risk of developing mesothelioma. This is a type of cancer that starts in the tissue surrounding the lungs.

  • are exposed to other cancer-causing agents at work. These include uranium, arsenic, vinyl chloride, nickel chromates, coal products, mustard gas, chloromethyl ethers, gasoline, and diesel exhaust.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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