Lung cancer is one of the most common types of cancer. A person’s outlook with lung cancer depends on the type of lung cancer they have, the stage at diagnosis, and their overall health.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), nearly 229,000 people in the United States received a lung cancer diagnosis in 2020. Lung cancer accounted for more than 1 in 8 new cancer diagnoses that year.

Lung cancer is localized when it has not spread beyond the lungs. Over time, however, it may spread to other parts of the body. The NCI add that the 5-year survival rate for localized lung cancer is more than 10 times higher than it is for lung cancer that has spread to distant parts of the body.

Receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer can be challenging and may leave a person with many questions. This article will take a look at how quickly lung cancer can spread and how that affects a person’s outlook with the condition.

Healthcare professionals broadly classify lung cancer as one of two types: small cell lung cancer (SCLC) or non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

Different types of lung cancer grow at different rates.

NSCLC accounts for about 85% of lung cancer cases. SCLC is less common than NSCLC, but it tends to spread more quickly. Doctors also tend to diagnose SCLC at a later stage, on average.

Lung cancer is more treatable in the early stages, but early detection is relatively uncommon. Approximately 57% of all lung cancers have spread beyond the chest by the time a doctor diagnoses the condition.

That number goes up in the case of SCLC. The American Cancer Society (ACS) report that 2 out of 3 cases of SCLC have already spread beyond the lungs by the time of diagnosis.

The American Lung Association estimate that over 12,000 lives could be saved by increased screening for lung cancer in people who have a high risk of the condition, including those with a history of smoking.

To learn whether or not lung cancer has spread, a healthcare professional may order tests such as:

  • blood tests
  • chest X-rays
  • MRI scans
  • CT scans
  • PET scans
  • bone scans

These tests will help them determine whether the cancer is localized to the lungs and chest or has spread to other areas of the body.

In the early stages, lung cancer may spread to nearby lymph nodes but remain within the chest cavity.

Over time, however, lung cancer may spread to more distant parts of the body through the process of metastasis. The most common sites in the body for lung cancer metastases to appear are:

  • the liver
  • the bones
  • the brain
  • the adrenal glands in the kidneys

Lung cancer cells can spread into nearby tissue in the chest or spread throughout the body through blood vessels or the lymphatic system.

A person’s outlook depends on the specific type of lung cancer they have, the stage at diagnosis, and their overall health.

The overall 5-year survival rate for lung cancer in the U.S. is 20.5%, according to the NCI. This means that about 1 out of 5 people with lung cancer will live for 5 years or longer after diagnosis.

The outlook improves when a doctor diagnoses and treats lung cancer early. The NCI add that over half of people who receive a diagnosis of localized lung cancer will live for 5 years or longer following diagnosis.

As diagnosis and treatment strategies improve, more people are surviving for a decade or longer with the condition.

The survival rates for NSCLC are higher than they are for SCLC.

NSCLC

The ACS report that among people who received a diagnosis of NSCLC in 2010–2016, the 5-year survival rate was:

  • 63% for localized NSCLC
  • 35% for NSCLC that had spread to nearby tissues
  • 7% for NSCLC that had spread to distant parts of the body

The overall 5-year survival rate for people with NSCLC was 25%.

SCLC

The ACS report that among people who received a diagnosis of SCLC in 2010–2016, the 5-year survival rate was:

  • 27% for localized SCLC
  • 16% for SCLC that had spread to nearby tissues
  • 3% for SCLC that had spread to distant parts of the body

The overall 5-year survival rate for people with SCLC was 7%.

Early diagnosis and treatment for lung cancer improve survival rates. Without treatment, the outlook for lung cancer is poor.

A 2013 review of studies found that the average survival time for people with NSCLC who do not receive treatment is just over 7 months. A 2012 review found that the survival time for untreated SCLC is in the range of 2–4 months.

A person’s cancer care team can help them weigh the potential benefits and risks of getting treatment. They may consider the following factors:

  • what type and stage of lung cancer the person has
  • their age and overall health
  • their personal preferences and goals

Treatment may improve survival but can cause side effects that lower quality of life.

Lung cancer is an aggressive form of cancer that spreads rapidly. Survival rates are improving but remain low, particularly for SCLC.

Early diagnosis and treatment improve a person’s chances of living for 5 years or longer with lung cancer.

People who smoke or used to smoke should ask a doctor about whether or not lung cancer screening is right for them.

Receiving a lung cancer diagnosis can be scary, but support is available. A person can connect with their healthcare team to learn more about strategies to slow the spread of lung cancer and improve the outlook.