Doctors treat non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) with surgery, chemotherapy, and other medical treatments. Typically, an earlier diagnosis leads to a better outlook.

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 doctors can treat it successfully with surgery, chemotherapy, and other medical treatments. Your prognosis will vary, 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.

The current survival rates for NSCLC are based on the data of people who received an NSCLC diagnosis between 2012 and 2018. According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rates for NSCLC are:

  • Localized: 65%
  • Regional: 37%
  • Distant: 9%

Other factors can also affect your individual outlook. These can include:

  • your subtype of NSCLC
  • specific genetic mutations in the tumor
  • how well the tumor responds to treatment
  • your age and overall health

When you receive a diagnosis of NSCLC, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed. It’s important to work with your team of doctors and specialists to come up with a treatment plan for your particular situation.

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

If you’re diagnosed with NSCLC, your doctor will stage your cancer. Staging shows how far the cancer has spread and informs your treatment plan.

For accurate staging, a doctor orders a variety of pre-staging diagnostic tests. These tests may include:

  • biopsies
  • ultrasounds
  • MRIs
  • bronchoscopies
  • surgery
  • CT scans
  • PET scans

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

  • Localized: cancer is only in the lungs
  • Regional: cancer has spread outside 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 at the time of diagnosis, the more likely the cancer will be treatable.

When lung cancer is diagnosed at later stages, the possibility of a cure may be low. Instead, the goal of treatment may focus on managing 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, immunotherapy, targeted therapies, radiation, or a combination 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

Chemo and other treatments, such as immunotherapy and targeted therapies, can help slow or stop the growth of cancer cells if the cancer has spread or you’re not healthy enough for surgery.

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. A 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.

What is the life expectancy with non-small cell lung cancer?

A person’s life expectancy with non-small cell lung cancer depends on the cancer stage, subtype, specific tumor mutations, and other factors such as age and overall health.

The 5-year average survival rate ranges from 9–65%, depending on the extent of disease.

How treatable is non-small cell lung cancer?

Doctors can treat NSCLC with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, and targeted therapies. The success of treatments can depend on the cancer stage and tumor genetics, as well as other factors.

What is the most aggressive lung cancer?

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is more aggressive than non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

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 can help 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 powerful to connect with other people who are living with NSCLC.

Speak with a member of your care team 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. Even when tumors are eliminated, there is no guarantee that they won’t come back. Recurrence is possible with any type of cancer.

You will likely receive regular testing for recurrences and receive additional treatment should one occur.