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How aggressive is non-small cell lung cancer?

Medically reviewed by Leigh Ann Anderson, PharmD. Last updated on Jan 3, 2022.

Official answer

by Drugs.com

How fast does non-small cell lung cancer spread?

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) tends to spread more slowly than small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and may be more manageable with treatment. About 80% of all lung cancers are diagnosed as NSCLC. Lung cancer most commonly spreads to the liver, brain, bones or adrenal glands.

Some forms of NSCLC do grow rapidly, such as large cell undifferentiated carcinoma and large cell neuroendocrine carcinoma.

Lung cancer is the most common cancer globally and accounts for about 13% of all cancer diagnoses in the U.S. It is ‚Äč‚Äčalso the most common cause of cancer deaths in the U.S., but those numbers are decreasing.

An individual person’s lung cancer prognosis will vary greatly based on the location, stage, type of cancer and other patient-specific factors. Small cell lung cancer tends to occur most frequently in people who are heavy smokers, but smoking can also cause non-small cell lung cancer.

How long can I live with non-small cell lung cancer?

Estimates of lung cancer survival rates can’t tell you exactly how long you will live after a diagnosis, but they can provide a better understanding of treatment success.

The stage of lung cancer at diagnosis helps to determine the overall estimated survival time. The American Lung Association uses the SEER (Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results) database, which tracks 5-year relative survival rates for NSCLC and SCLC based on how far the cancer has spread.

The SEER database groups cancers into localized, regional, and distant stages. When all All SEER stages are combined, the 5-year relative survival rate for non-small cell lung cancer is 25%, while the 5-year survival rate for small cell lung cancer is 7%.

Localized: With localized lung cancer, there is no sign that the cancer has spread outside of the lung.

  • Statistically, the chances of being alive at least five years after a diagnosis of localized non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is 63%. This means that people who have localized NSCLC are, on average, about 63% as likely as people who don’t have that cancer to live for at least 5 years after being diagnosed.
  • In contrast, the chances of being alive at least five years after a diagnosis of localized small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is 27%. This means that people who have localized SCLC are, on average, about 27% as likely as people who don’t have that cancer to live for at least 5 years after being diagnosed.

Regional: Regional lung cancer has spread outside the lung to nearby structures or lymph nodes.

  • Statistically, the chances of being alive at least five years after a diagnosis of regional non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is 35%. People who have regional NSCLC are, on average, about 35% as likely as people who don’t have that cancer to live for at least 5 years after being diagnosed.
  • In contrast, the chances of being alive at least five years after a diagnosis of regional small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is 16%. This means that people who have regional SCLC are, on average, about 16% as likely as people who don’t have that cancer to live for at least 5 years after being diagnosed.

Distant: The cancer has spread to distant parts of the body, such as the brain, bones, liver, or the other lung.

  • Statistically, the chances of being alive at least five years after a diagnosis of distant non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is 7%. People who have distant NSCLC are, on average, about 7% as likely as people who don’t have that cancer to live for at least 5 years after being diagnosed.
  • In contrast, the chances of being alive at least five years after a diagnosis of regional small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is 3%. This means that people who have regional SCLC are, on average, about 3% as likely as people who don’t have that cancer to live for at least 5 years after being diagnosed.

How does lung cancer survival compare to other cancers?

The overall 5-year survival rate of lung cancer is much less than some other common types of cancer:

  • lung cancer: 18.6%
  • colorectal cancer: 64.5%
  • breast cancer 89.6%
  • prostate cancer 98.2%

But it is important to remember that these numbers are based on population averages and are not a predictor of how long any one person diagnosed with cancer will live. Consult with your cancer doctor, who can give you a more personalized estimate of your prognosis.

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