Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

This information is useful for adults
Smiling man, perhaps unaware of non-small cell lung cancer

There are two primary types of lung cancer, known as non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). Named initially for how the cancer cells look under the microscope, these two account for 230,000 newly diagnosed cases of lung cancer in the U.S. each year.

The vast majority (85 percent) of lung cancers fall into the category called non-small cell lung cancer. Though this form of lung cancer progresses more slowly than SCLC, 40 percent of NSCLCs will have spread beyond the lungs by the time it is diagnosed.

“While many non-smokers can get lung cancer, the most prevalent risk factor for NSCLC is smoking,” explains Yale Medicine’s Roy S. Herbst, MD, PhD, Yale Cancer Center’s chief of medical oncology and Ensign Professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine. Your overall exposure to smoking—the longer you smoke and the more packs you smoke in your lifetime—increases the risk for developing this type of cancer. Early detection offers the best prognosis for this type of lung cancer, because so many cases of NSCLC are not detected until they have spread (metastasized) to other areas of the body. Treatments for NSCLC include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and targeted therapy.

“The standard of care for lung cancer treatment has changed just in the last five years, due to advances in clinical research that our patients have contributed to,” says Anne Chiang, MD, PhD, a Yale Medicine oncologist who treats lung cancers. “There is real hope in the field that we are able to improve and extend patients’ lives.” 

NCSLC is the most common type of lung cancer. Like all cancers, NSCLC begins at the cellular level and causes abnormal cells in the lungs to reproduce rapidly and out of control. NSCLCs are carcinomas, which are cancers of the cells lining the surface of the lung airways. These include the bronchi, bronchioles, and alveoli.