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Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Feb 6, 2023.

What is non-small cell lung cancer?

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common type of lung cancer.

The Lungs

What are the subtypes of NSCLC?

  • Squamous cell carcinoma is found in cells that line the airways of the lungs. It is usually found in the middle of the lung.
  • Adenocarcinoma is found in cells that produce mucus. It is usually found in the outer parts of the lung.
  • Large cell carcinoma can be found in any part of the lung.
  • Other subtypes such as adenosquamous carcinoma and sarcomatoid carcinoma, are less common.

What increases my risk for NSCLC?

  • Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
  • A personal or family history of lung cancer
  • Exposure to radon or asbestos
  • Exposure to uranium, arsenic, or diesel exhaust
  • Living in a place with high air pollution
  • Radiation therapy to the breast or chest

What are the signs and symptoms of NSCLC?

  • A cough or hoarseness that does not go away or gets worse
  • Chest pain that is worse when you take a deep breath, cough, or laugh
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored mucus
  • Shortness of breath or new or worsened wheezing
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Lung infections that do not go away or keep coming back

How is NSCLC diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine you and ask about your symptoms. Men and women (50 to 80 years old) with a 20 pack-year smoking history may be screened for lung cancer. Screening means you are checked for lung cancer before signs or symptoms begin. A 20 pack-year smoking history means you smoked 1 pack per day for 20 years or 2 per day for 15 years. You may need any of the following to confirm or rule out lung cancer:

  • X-ray, ultrasound, CT, or MRI pictures may show where the cancer is in your lung. You may be given contrast liquid to help your lungs show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the provider if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • A PET scan may be done to see if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body. Radioactive liquid is injected into your IV to help cancer cells show up better in pictures.
  • Blood tests are done to get information about your overall health.
  • A sputum sample may be tested for cancer cells.
  • A biopsy , or sample of lung tissue, can be taken to test for cancer. A biopsy can be done through several procedures such as bronchoscopy, endobronchial ultrasound, or mediastinoscopy.
  • A thoracentesis tests the fluid around the lung for cancer cells. It is removed with a small needle inserted through your chest.
  • Genomic sequencing tests may show which cells are causing cancer. This can help your provider choose which medicine to give you.

How is NSCLC staged?

The stage of NSCLC describes how far the cancer has spread. Your healthcare provider will decide what treatment you need depending on the stage of your NSCLC. Talk to your healthcare provider about how NSCLC is staged.

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How is NSCLC treated?

  • Radiofrequency ablation uses radio waves to heat the tumor and destroy cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy uses x-rays to kill or shrink cancer cells. The two types of radiation therapy are external beam radiation therapy and brachytherapy.
  • Chemotherapy is medicine to kill cancer cells and stop it from spreading. It may be given before surgery, after surgery, or alone.
  • Targeted therapy medicine stops the growth and spread of cancer cells.
  • Immunotherapy medicine helps the body find and kill cancer cells.
  • Surgery may be needed to remove the cancer, part of the lung, or the entire lung. Surgery may include video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS), or an open thoracotomy.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

What can I do to manage my symptoms?

  • Use pursed-lip breathing any time you feel short of breath. Take a deep breath in through your nose. Slowly breathe out through your mouth with your lips pursed for twice as long as you inhaled. You can also practice this breathing pattern while you bend, lift, climb stairs, or exercise. It slows down your breathing and helps move more air in and out of your lungs.
    Breathe in Breathe out
  • Use oxygen as directed. Use oxygen when you feel short of breath or when you exercise. You may need to use oxygen all of the time. Ask your healthcare provider about oxygen therapy.
  • Eat small meals often. Your shortness of breath may make it hard to eat a lot of food at one time. Eat a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish. Ask if you need to be on a special diet.
    Healthy Foods
  • Drink liquids as directed. Ask how much liquid to drink each day and which liquids are best for you. Drink extra liquids to prevent dehydration. You will need to drink extra liquids if you are vomiting or have diarrhea from cancer treatments.
  • Balance exercise with rest. Ask about the best exercise plan for you. Exercise may improve your energy levels and appetite. It can also help you heal faster after treatment or surgery. Rest when you feel tired.

How can I help lower my risk for NSCLC?

  • Do not smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can cause lung damage. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.
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  • Have lung cancer screening, if recommended. Lung cancer screening is a test done every year to find lung cancer early. Screening is different from diagnosis because screening is used before you have any signs or symptoms. Screening is offered to adults aged 50 to 80 who have at least a 20-pack year history of smoking. Pack-years are the number of cigarette packs you smoked multiplied by the number of years you smoked. Examples are 1 pack of cigarettes each day for 20 years, or 2 packs each day for 10 years. Lung cancer screening has benefits and risks. Talk with your healthcare provider about the benefits and risks to help you decide if lung cancer screening is right for you.
  • Limit or do not drink alcohol. Alcohol can make breathing problems worse. Ask your healthcare provider if alcohol is safe for you to drink.
  • Have your home tested for radon and asbestos. You can decrease your exposure to radon and asbestos by having your home tested and treated. Ask your healthcare provider how to get your home tested. If asbestos is found in your home, do not try to remove it yourself. Have a professional remove it.
  • Limit your exposure to harmful chemicals in the workplace. Asbestos and other harmful chemicals can be found in mines, mills, textile plants, and shipyards. Follow procedures and policies to protect yourself at work. Use protective equipment such as masks to decrease your risk of inhaling harmful chemicals.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • You suddenly have more trouble breathing than usual.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You cannot think clearly.
  • Your lips or nails look blue or pale.
  • You have a headache or dizziness.
  • You have more swelling in your face, arms, neck, or chest.

When should I call my doctor?

  • You have a fever.
  • You have severe pain.
  • Your symptoms such as wheezing, or cough, get worse.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

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