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Understanding your risk

Smoking tobacco is responsible for 87 percent of lung cancer cases in the United States. The number of  years you smoke and the amount you smoke increase your risk of lung cancer.  If you stop smoking, your risk lowers with time. 

Like other cancers, your risk depends on many variables, including:

  • Exposure to certain materials including radiation, arsenic, radon, soot, tar or asbestos.
  • Radiation therapy to the breast or chest.
  • Air pollution.
  • Secondhand smoke.
  • Lung diseases such as tuberculosis (TB)
  • Family history of lung cancer.
  • Lifestyle behavior (e.g. smoking)
  • General health.
  • Previous lung cancer.

Optum’s oncology department offers comprehensive cancer risk assessments and hereditary cancer genetics evaluation programs to help you identify your risk.

Diagnosing lung cancer

Lung cancer screening with low dose CT scans has been shown to detect lung cancers when they are more likely to be cured. If you are a current or past smoker, discuss with your primary care physician or a pulmonologist whether you might be a candidate for this potentially life-saving screening test.

Optum offers the latest lung cancer diagnostic tools to its patients. A cancer specialist (typically a pulmonologist or thoracic surgeon) may order tests such as X-rays, a CT scan (computed tomography), and/or a PET scan (positron emission tomography) prior to recommending a biopsy.

For a definitive diagnosis, a biopsy, a procedure in which a sample of tissue is removed and examined under a microscope, is required.  There are two main ways to obtain biopsies:

  • Navigational bronchoscopy: a GPS-like system that guides the instrument through the branching airways of the lung to the site of the abnormality with extreme accuracy.
  • EBUS (endoscopic bronchial ultrasound) : a bronchoscopy with ultrasound capability to help localize the lung abnormality as well as the regional lymph nodes to help more accurately guide the biopsy needle to the correct location.

Types of lung cancer

In general, the different types of lung cancer are divided into two main categories:

  • Small cell lung cancer (SCLC): An uncommon type of lung cancer caused by smoking, it often starts in the bronchi, or the airways that lead from the trachea into the lungs and then branch off into progressively smaller structures.
  • Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC): the more common and slower growing category of lung cancers,  it is found in the outer region of the lung, in glands that secrete mucus.


Treatment of lung cancer in any one individual is tailored precisely depending on patient characteristics, the size and location of the cancer and sometimes on very specific mutations that we test for in the cancer cells themselves. Standard treatment recommendations may include the following:

  • Surgery: to remove the tumor or affected area.
  • Chemotherapy: chemicals administered in a pill or IV form to kill and slow the growth of cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy: high-powered beams of energy, such as X-rays and protons, that are used to kill and slow the growth of cancer cells.
  • Targeted and Immunotherapy: drugs that attack specific abnormalities within cancer cells or by directing your immune system to kill cancer cells.

Medical care and help

To find a lung cancer specialist near you, visit our providers page.

Click here to learn more about Optum’s minimally invasive robotic assisted surgery options.

Contact us if you have any questions.