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Lung Cancer Types and Stages

  • Published: 2009-02-21 (Revised/Updated 2010-11-25) : Author: Miles Greer
  • Synopsis: There are two major types of lung cancers non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer and four stages.

Lung cancer is one of the most deadly diseases for both men and women. Most lung cancers start in the cells that line bronchi, but they can also begin in other areas such as the Trachea (windpipe), bronchioles, or alveoli (the tiny air sacs at the end of the bronchioles.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. Nearly 1 every 2 men and 1 in 3 women in the United States will develop cancer sometime during their life. The risk of developing most types of cancer can be reduced by changes in a person's lifestyle, such as quitting smoking, eating a better diet, drinking more clean and fresh water rather than alcoholic or caffeinated beverages. The sooner a cancer is found and treated, the better are the chances for living for many years.

Like any other cancers, lung cancers are thought to develop over the course of many years. They may start as areas of pre-cancerous stages in the lung. At the earlier stage with changes happen within the cells themselves, no mass or tumor is formed at this stage, therefore, they cannot be seen on an x-ray and won't cause any symptoms. However, these pre-cancerous changes may progress to true cancer. At some point when the cancer cells grow and form a tumor large enough to be seen on x-rays, cells from the cancer may break away from the original tumor and spread (also known as metastasize) to other part of the body. Lung cancer is a life-threatening disease because it often spread far beyond the lung even before it can be detected.

There are two major types of lung cancers, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). If a lung cancer has both types of cancer, it is called mixed small/large cell cancer. This is not too common.

The two types of cancers are staged and treated differently.

Non-small cell lung cancers make up 85% to 90% of lung cancers, they are staged from 0 to IV. Stage 0 being the earliest, most treatable and stage IV is most advanced.

Small cell lung cancers make up 10% to 15% of lung cancers, labeled by Limited Stage Disease (cancer is on one side of the chest) and Extensive Stage Disease (spread beyond one side of the chest)

Here is a general view of the stages of the non-small cell lung cancer:

Stage 0: The cancer is found only in the top layers of cells lining the air passages. It has not invaded deeper into other lung tissues and has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage I: The cancer is no larger than 3 centimeters (cm) across, has not reached the membranes that surround the lungs, and does not affect the main branches of the bronchi. It has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage II: The cancer is no larger than 3 centimeters, has not grown into the membranes that surround the lungs, and does not affect the main branches of the bronchi. It has spread to lymph nodes within the lung and/or around the area where the bronchus enters the lung (hilar lymph nodes). It has not spread to distant sites.

Stage III: The cancer is no larger than 3 centimeters, has not grown into the membrane that surrounds the lungs, and does not affect the main branches of the bronchi. The cancer has spread to lymph nodes around the carina (the point where the windpipe splits into the left and right bronchi) or in the space behind the breastbone and in front of the heart (mediastinum). Affected lymph nodes are on the same side as the primary tumor. The cancer has not spread to distant sites.

Stage IV: The cancer can be any size and may or may not have grown into nearby structures or reached nearby lymph nodes. It has spread to distant sites.

There are various treatments for stage 4 cancer available today, however, due to the low life expectancy of sufferers, the treatment is not intended to cure the cancer, rather slow down the effects of the disease, reduce the impact of symptoms and make a person's life more comfortable. This article goes through the most common stage 4 cancer treatments.


In case you're not aware, chemotherapy refers to the administration of drugs (medicine) used to slow down the growth of cancer in the body. These are administrated over a 1 to 3 day period every couple of weeks. Following the end of this period, doctors see how normal tissue has been affected before administering more chemotherapy. Chemo is known as an effective treatment, however, there are various side effects such as nausea, vomiting and loss of hair.


A more immediate and sometimes more effective form of treatment for stage 4 cancer is surgery whereby doctors physically remove as much cancer as possible to make life that bit more comfortable for the patient. However, this has limits as to how much cancer can be successfully removed. Given that the cancer has metastasized at this advanced stage, it's impossible to remove everything. The rest can only be removed via chemo or radiation therapy and this is not even guaranteed.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy involves bombarding high energy x-rays to those parts of the body that are affected by cancer. Such therapy is usually undertaken in coordination with chemotherapy so that as many cancer cells as possible are killed off.

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