Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in American men and women. It’s also the leading cause of cancer-related deaths for both American men and women.

According to the American Lung Association, 1 in 4 cancer-related deaths is from lung cancer.

Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer. Men who smoke are 23 times more likely to develop lung cancer, when compared with nonsmokers. Women who smoke are 13 times more likely.

The number of new lung cancer cases has begun to drop in the United States, mostly because of increased early detection and people stopping smoking.

The American Cancer Society predicts there will be about 236,000 new diagnoses of lung cancer in 2021. These cases are each classified by type and stage, and eventually their outcomes.

These statistics are tracked in the SEER (Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results) database, maintained by the National Cancer Institute. It is used to calculate survival rates for various types of cancer, including lung cancer.

The SEER database, however, does not group cancers by the formal TNM (tumor, lymph nodes, and metastasis) staging system described in the following section. Instead of categorizing stages by numbers as the TNM system does, it groups cancers into three progressive stages:

  • Localized. Cancer is only in one lung.
  • Regional. Cancer has spread from the lung to lymph nodes or other nearby parts of the body.
  • Distant. Cancer has spread outside one lung to the other lung or to distant parts of the body, such as brain, bones, or liver.

There are two main types of lung cancer:

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)

This is the most common type of lung cancer. Per the American Cancer Society (ACS), roughly 85 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer each year have NSCLC.

Doctors further divide NSCLC into stages. Stages refer to the location and scale of the cancer and affect the way your cancer is treated.

The staging system most often used for NSCLC is the TNM system of the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) . This is a complex system of four stages that are further divided into categories and subcategories.

TNM stands for tumor, lymph nodes, and metastasis. Many factors are involved in staging NSCLC lung cancer. Your doctor will conduct tests and imaging to determine such things as:

  • tumor location
  • tumor size
  • involvement of lymph nodes
  • extent of metastasis, or spreading

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC)

Less common than NSCLC, SCLC is only diagnosed in 10 to 15 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer, according to the ACS.

Small cell lung cancer is more aggressive than NSCLC and can spread quickly. It’s also sometimes called oat cell cancer.

Doctors assign stages to SCLC using two different methods.

The more formal way of assigning stages is the TNM staging system described in the NSCLC section above. TNM stands for tumor, lymph nodes, and metastasis.

As in staging NSCLC, your doctor will do a physical exam and order various tests to determine the stage of your SCLC.

The more common staging system for SCLC is a simpler one. It involves classifying the cancer as just one of two stages:

  • Limited. The cancer is only on one side of the chest and in a limited, defined area.
  • Extensive. The cancer has spread throughout the lung, to the other lung, to lymph nodes on the other side of the chest, or to other parts of the body.

Because the systems for staging lung cancer are complex, it’s best to ask your doctor to explain your stage and what it means for you.

Early detection is the best way to improve your outlook, especially as treatments improve.

Men are more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer than women, by a small margin.

The ACS estimates that 119,100 men and 116,660 women will be diagnosed with lung cancer in the United States during 2021.

This trend holds up for lung cancer-related deaths, too. It’s projected that 131,880 people in the United States will die from lung cancer during 2021.

Of that number, the ACS projects a breakdown of 69,410 men and 62,470 women.

To put that into perspective, the chance a man will develop lung cancer in his lifetime is 1 in 15. For women, that chance is 1 in 17.

More people die from lung cancer every year than from breast, colon, and prostate cancers combined.

The average age of a person when they receive a lung cancer diagnosis is 70, with the majority of diagnoses in adults over the age of 65 years old, according to the ACS.

A very small number of lung cancer diagnoses are made in adults under age 45.

Black men are 15 percent more likely to develop lung cancer than white men, per the ACS. The reason behind this is complex and isn’t related to more cigarette smoking.

Multiple factors may be at play including genetics, environment, and health disparities such as access to care.

The rate of diagnosis among black women is about 14 percent lower than in white women. The rate of lung cancer diagnosis among men is still higher than the diagnosis rates for either black women or white women, but not by much.

The number of lung cancer diagnoses has been dropping for men over the past several decades, but for women it has begun dropping only in the last decade.

Lung cancer is a very serious type of cancer. It’s often fatal for people who are diagnosed with it. But that’s slowly changing with strides in research.

People who are diagnosed with early stage lung cancer are surviving in growing numbers. According to the American Lung Associations, about 541,000 people who were diagnosed with lung cancer at some point are still alive today.

If you’re diagnosed with lung cancer, your doctor may talk to you about probable survival rates. This number is a statistic based on large numbers of people with the same type and stage of cancer.

Your experience may be different.

What is a 5-year survival rate?

The survival rate most often given for lung cancer is a 5-year survival rate. This rate reflects the percentage of people alive after 5 years post-diagnosis.

If you’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer, many factors will affect your outlook, including your:

  • type and stage of disease
  • treatment plan
  • overall health

Remember that survival rates are only estimates. Everyone’s body responds to the disease and its treatment differently. A survival rate is not an individual prediction of your prognosis.

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) survival rates

The 5-year survival rate for NSCLC varies according to the stage and extent of the disease. The good news is that 5-year survival rates for all forms of lung cancer have been improving in recent years.

Research is focusing on more effective treatments that have the potential to improve the outlook.

The ACS estimates 5-year survival rates based on NSCLC cancer stage:

  • Localized: 63 percent
  • Regional: 35 percent
  • Distant: 7 percent
  • All stages combined: 25 percent

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) survival rates

As with NSCLC, the 5-year survival rate for people with SCLC varies depending on the stage and extent of the disease.

Rates for the early stages of SCLC are more challenging to quantify due to how infrequently it’s diagnosed at that stage.

Therefore, it’s more common to include the 5-year survival rate for all stages of SCLC, which is 6.5 percent as of 2017.

Your doctor can guide you in understanding the outlook of your situation specifically.

If you complete treatments and are declared cancer-free, your doctor will likely want you to maintain regular checkups. This is because cancer, even when initially treated successfully, can come back.

After treatment is completed, you’ll continue to follow up with your oncologist for a surveillance period. It’ll typically last for 5 years because the risk of recurrence is highest in the first 5 years after treatment.

Your risk for recurrence will depend on the type of lung cancer you have and the stage at diagnosis. Once you complete your treatments, expect to see your doctor at least every 6 months for the first 2 to 3 years.

If, after that period of time, your doctor hasn’t seen any changes or areas of concern, they may recommend reducing your visits to once a year. Your risk for recurrence decreases the further out you get from your treatment.

During follow-up visits, your doctor may request imaging tests to check for the cancer’s return or new cancer development. It’s important that you follow up with your oncologist and report any new symptoms right away.

If you have advanced lung cancer, your doctor will talk to you about ways to manage your symptoms. These symptoms can include:

  • pain
  • cough
  • headaches or other neurological symptoms
  • side effects of any treatments

Lung cancer is a serious disease, but advances in treatment are being made every day.

Speak with your doctor about how to proceed with your treatment to give you the best outlook.