Living with any kind of cancer isn’t easy. Be sure to talk with your medical team about any questions you may have, and any mental and emotional challenges you may be feeling.

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common type of lung cancer. NSCLC grows and spreads less aggressively than small cell lung cancer.

This means that it often can be treated more successfully with surgery, chemotherapy, and other medical treatments. Prognosis varies, but the earlier a diagnosis is made, the better the outlook.

Smoking is the leading cause of NSCLC and other types of lung cancer. Other risk factors include:

  • exposure to asbestos
  • air and water pollutants
  • secondhand smoke

The prognosis for NSCLC depends on several factors.

The most important factor is the stage of the disease. The 5-year survival rate is the percentage of people with that stage of cancer that are alive 5 years after diagnosis.

For lung cancer, 5-year survival rates range from 63 percent for localized NSCLC to 7 percent for late-stage, or distant, cancer.

When you receive a diagnosis of NSCLC, you may feel lost and unsure about what to do next. It’s important to work with your team of doctors and specialists to come up with a treatment plan that is appropriate for your particular situation.

You may work with your primary doctor, surgeon, oncologist, radiologist, and other specialists. Together, they’ll devise a treatment plan, answer your questions, and address your concerns.

If you’re diagnosed with NSCLC, your doctor will stage your cancer. Staging defines the extent of the cancer and helps determine the appropriate treatment strategy.

For accurate staging, a variety of pre-staging diagnostic tests are done. These tests include:

  • biopsies
  • ultrasounds
  • MRIs
  • bronchoscopies
  • surgery

The stages of lung cancer include localized, regional, and distant. These stages are defined as:

  • Localized. Cancer is just in the lungs.
  • Regional. Cancer has spread outside of the lungs to nearby structures, like the lymph nodes.
  • Distant. Cancer has spread to distant organs like the liver or brain.

The earlier the stage designation at the time of diagnosis, the more likely that the cancer will be treatable.

When lung cancer is diagnosed at later stages, the possibility of a cure may be very low. Instead, the goal of treatment may focus on controlling the growth of the cancer and preventing it from spreading to other areas outside the lung.

Early stage treatments

Treatment for NSCLC varies depending on the stage of the cancer and your health.

For early stage lung cancer, surgery may be successful at removing the entire tumor and cancer cells. In some cases, no other treatment is needed.

In other cases, along with surgery, you may need treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, or both, to eliminate any remaining cancer cells.

You may also receive other treatments, such as medication for pain, infection, or nausea, to help reduce any uncomfortable symptoms or side effects of treatment.

Treatment for late stage NSCLC

If the cancer has spread to other parts of your body, or if you’re not healthy enough for surgery, chemotherapy can help slow or stop the growth of cancer cells.

In most cases, the goal of treatment is to help relieve symptoms and prolong life rather than to cure the cancer.

Radiation is another option for treating tumors that cannot be removed surgically. It involves targeting tumors with high-energy radiation to shrink or eliminate them.

Treatment for symptoms

In addition to treatments designed to slow, halt, or eliminate cancer cells, you may need additional care to help relieve your symptoms.

Tumors can cause pain, and even if they can’t be eliminated completely, their growth can be slowed with chemotherapy, radiation, or lasers. Your doctor can create a treatment plan to help ease any pain you have.

Tumors in the airways of the lungs can cause difficulty breathing. Laser therapy or a treatment called photodynamic therapy can shrink tumors that are blocking your airways. This can help restore normal breathing.

Living with any kind of cancer isn’t easy. Along with physical symptoms, you may also experience emotional distress, anxiety, or fear.

To cope with these feelings, make sure that you’re honest and open with your medical team. You may be referred to a psychologist or counselor to help you cope with mental and emotional challenges.

It’s important to reach out to close family or friends to help support you during this difficult time. Your loved ones can help assist you and listen to your concerns.

It can also be very powerful to connect with other people who are living with NSCLC.

Speak with your doctor about finding a support group for those who have been diagnosed with or who have survived cancer. Online support groups are another option.

Cancer can be considered a chronic condition, and even when tumors are eliminated, there is no guarantee that they won’t come back. Recurrence is possible with any type of cancer.

Your medical team will make a plan for you to be checked regularly for recurrences, and they’ll be ready with a strategy for treatment in the event of recurrence.