Non-small cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC), also called non-small cell lung cancer, is the most common type of lung cancer. “Non-small cell” refers to the way cancer cells look under a microscope. If the cells look small, the cancer is referred to as small cell lung cancer (SCLC).

According to the American Cancer Society, about 80 to 85 percent of all lung carcinomas fall into the non-small cell category. NSCLC doesn’t tend to spread as fast as SCLC and has a better survival rate.

The majority of people with early-stage NSCLC survive at least 5 years, but the survival rate is much lower if the cancer has spread to other tissues at the time of diagnosis.

In this article, we review the survival rates and outlook for NSCLC.

A 5-year survival rate is the percentage of people with a certain cancer who are still alive 5 years after their diagnosis. For example, if 90 percent of people with a certain type of cancer are alive 5 years later, the 5-year survival rate would be 90 percent.

The 5-year survival rate is commonly used to measure a cancer’s deadliness. Cancer is most likely to return within 5 years, which is why many sources include a 5-year survival rate in their statistics. You may also see some sources list 1-, 2-, or 3-year survival rates.

Another common statistic used to measure cancer outlook is the 5-year relative survival rate. A 5-year relative survival rate compares the survival rate of people with a certain cancer with the survival rate of the general population in the same period. It aims to show how much the cancer lowers lifespan.

For example, a 95 percent 5-year relative survival rate means that people with a disease are 95 percent as likely to be alive after 5 years than people without the disease.

The average survival rate for NSCLC is higher than the average survival rate for SCLC. According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year relative survival rate for all stages is 25 percent.

Numerous factors influence your chances of survival, such as:

  • your age
  • the extent of your cancer
  • the subtype of NSCLC
  • your overall health

Survival rates can give you a rough idea of what to expect. However, your medical care team can give you a better idea of your outlook.

Here’s a look at how the 5-year relative survival rate changes by cancer stage:

StageExtent of cancer5-year relative survival rate
localizedlimited to your lungs63%
regionalspread to nearby tissues35%
distantspread to distant tissues7%

Lung cancer survival rates are continuing to rise, and it’s possible that the actual survival rates are higher than the statistical rates based on past data.

From 1975 to 2013, the 5-year relative survival rate of all lung cancers nearly doubled from 11.5 to 22.1 percent.

Here are some commonly asked questions people have about NSCLC:

Can NSCLC spread?

NSCLC can spread to other parts of your body if left untreated or if treatment fails. NSCLC spreads outside the lungs in roughly 30 to 40 percent of cases at the time of diagnosis.

NSCLC that has spread to nearby lymph nodes is called stage 2B lung cancer. NSCLC that has spread to nearby areas is known as stage 3 cancer, and NSCLC that has spread to more than one area outside your lungs is known as stage 4 cancer.

The most common places for NSCLC to spread is to the bone or brain. Once cancer has spread to the bone or brain, most people survive less than a year.

Is NSCLC treatable?

NSCLC is treatable, especially if treatment starts before the cancer spreads to other body parts.

If the cancer is limited to a small part of your lungs, it may be treatable with surgery alone. A more advanced cancer may require additional treatments. According to the National Cancer Institute, nine types of standard treatments are used for NSCLC:

Radiosensitizers and new combinations of treatment are currently being investigated in clinical trials.

Is NSCLC slow-growing?

NSCLC tends to grow slower than SCLC and has a better outlook. However, the speed at which it progresses varies between people and can be influenced by many factors.

In a 2016 study, researchers found that the time of progression of NSCLC from early to advanced stages varied between ethnicities, with white people showing quicker progression than African American and Asian people.

The study compared ages of different people as a way to determine how quickly different racial groups progressed from stage 1A to stage 3 NSCLC.

The table below shows the average age difference across ethnicities, between stage 1A and stage 3 cancer:

EthnicityAverage age difference between stage 1A and 3
African American1.0

NSCLC is the most common type of lung cancer. The outlook of NSCLC is best when it’s caught before it spreads beyond your lungs. Nearly two-thirds of people with early-stage lung cancer survive at least 5 years.

Advanced NSCLC has a lower survival rate. If the cancer has spread to nearby tissues, the chance of surviving at least 5 years drops to about 1 in 3, and if it has spread to distant tissue, the chance drops to less than 1 in 10.

NSCLC treatment is continuing to improve, and NSCLC survival rates will likely continue to rise over time. Your healthcare team can help you develop a treatment plan and alert you of any clinical trials that you may be eligible for.