Stage 3 Lung Cancer Symptoms and Outlook

Stage 3 Lung Cancer Symptoms and Outlook

Diagnosis often occurs at stage 3

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. It takes more lives than breast, prostate, and colon cancer combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In approximately 40 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer, the disease has reached an advanced state at the time of diagnosis. And one-third of those have reached stage 3.

Read more to learn about the symptoms, treatments, and outlook for this stage of non-small cell lung cancer. This is the most common type of the disease.

Stage 3 categories

When lung cancer reaches stage 3, it has spread from the lungs to other nearby tissue or distant lymph nodes. The broad category of stage 3 lung cancer is divided into two groups, stage 3A and stage 3B. Both stage 3A and stage 3B are broken into subsections depending on tumor size, location, and lymph node involvement.

Stage 3A: One side of the body

Stage 3A lung cancer is considered locally advanced. This means the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes on the same side of the chest as the primary lung tumor. But it has not traveled to distant areas in the body.

The main bronchus, lung lining, chest wall lining, chest wall, diaphragm, or membrane around the heart may be involved. There may be metastasis to the heart blood vessels, the trachea, the esophagus, the nerve governing the voice box, the chest bone or backbone, or the carina, which is the area where the trachea joins the bronchi.

Stage 3B: Spread to the opposite side

Stage 3B lung cancer is more advanced. The disease has spread to lymph nodes above the collarbone or to the nodes on the opposite side of the chest from the site of the primary lung tumor.  

Like stage 3A, stage 3B cancer may have spread to other chest structures. Part or all of the lung may become inflamed or collapse.


Early stage lung cancer may produce no visible symptoms. There may be noticeable symptoms, such as a new, persistent, lingering cough, or a change in a smoker’s cough (deeper, more frequent, produces more mucus or blood). These symptoms may indicate that the cancer has progressed to stage 3. Other symptoms to look out for include:

  • trouble breathing, being winded or short of breath
  • pain in chest area
  • wheezing sound when breathing
  • voice changes (hoarser)
  • unexplained drop in weight
  • bone pain (may be in the back and may feel worse at night)
  • headache


Stage 3 lung cancer options include surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible. This would be followed by chemotherapy and radiation. Surgery alone is generally not indicated for stage 3B.

Your doctor may recommend radiation or chemotherapy if the lung tumor cannot be operated on. Treatment with radiation and chemotherapy, either at the same time or sequentially, is associated with improved stage 3B survival rates compared with radiation-only treatment, according to the National Cancer Institute.


The 5-year survival rate refers to the percentage of people who are alive 5 years after they are first diagnosed. These survival rates can be divided by the stage of a particular cancer type at the time of diagnosis. According to the American Cancer Society data derived from a database of people diagnosed with lung cancer between 1998 and 2000, the 5-year survival rate for stage 3A lung cancer was 14 percent. For stage 3B the 5-year survival rate was 5 percent.  

To keep in mind

Stage 3 lung cancer is treatable. Everyone is different, and there is no precise way to predict how any individual will respond to treatment. Age and overall health are important factors in how well people respond to lung cancer treatment.

Lung cancer clinical trials may offer an opportunity to participate in an investigation of a new treatment. These new treatments may not offer a cure, but they have the potential to ease symptoms and extend life.

You asked, we answered

  • What are the benefits of quitting smoking, even after a stage 3 lung cancer diagnosis?
  • According to a study in the British Medical Journal, quitting smoking after a diagnosis of early staged lung cancer improves outcomes. There is evidence that suggests that continuing to smoke can interfere with the effects of treatment and increase side effects as well as increase your chances of cancer recurrence and/or a second cancer. It is well-known that smoking cigarettes increases surgical complications, so if surgery is part of your treatment plan, smoking can lead to delays in systemic treatment. The bottom line is that it is never too late to quit smoking. The benefits of quitting smoking are immediate and profound even if you already have lung cancer. If you want to quit but are finding it difficult, ask your medical team for help.

    - Monica Bien, PA-C
  • Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

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