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Cancer stages provide information on how big the primary tumor is and whether it has spread to local or distant parts of the body. Staging helps your doctor determine what type of treatment you need. And it helps you get a handle on what you’re facing.

Lung cancer is serious disease that can be challenging to diagnose in its earlier stages. But researchers are working on more effective diagnostic tools to help detect lung cancer earlier to help make treatment more effective.

A high-level way of looking at stage 1 lung cancer, is to look at the two sub-stages: 1a and 1b.

  • Stage 1a. The cancer cells are 3 centimeters (cm) or smaller.
  • Stage 1b. The cancer cells are between 3 cm and 4 cm and may be moving into other areas of the lung such as the main airway or membrane.

These stages come from the TNM staging system. This system helps categorize key elements of the cancer as follows:

  • T describes the size and other features of the tumor.
  • N indicates if cancer has reached the lymph nodes.
  • M tells if cancer has metastasized to other parts of the body.

Once the TNM categories are assigned, the overall stage can be determined. Lung cancer is staged from 0 to 4. Stage 1 is further divided into 1a and 1b.

Here are some examples:

  • T1a, N0, M0. Your primary tumor is 2 centimeters (cm) or less (T1a). There is no lymph node involvement (N0) and no metastasis (M0). You have stage 1a lung cancer.
  • T1b, N0, M0. Your primary tumor is between 2 and 3 cm (T1b). There is no lymph node involvement (N0) and no metastasis (M0). You have stage 1a lung cancer.
  • T2a, N0, M0. Your primary tumor is between 3 and 5 cm. It may be growing into a main airway (bronchus) of your lung or the membrane that covers the lung (visceral pleura). Cancer may be partially blocking your airways (T2a). There is no lymph node involvement (N0) and no metastasis (M0). You have stage 1b lung cancer.

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is staged differently than non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), using this two-stage system:

  • Limited stage. Cancer is found on only one side of your chest.
  • Extensive stage. Cancer has spread throughout your lung, on both sides of your chest, or to more distant sites.

Stage 1 lung cancer usually doesn’t cause symptoms, but you may experience:

  • shortness of breath
  • hoarseness
  • coughing

Later-stage lung cancer may lead to coughing up blood, wheezing, and chest pain, but that doesn’t usually happen in stage 1.

Because early symptoms are mild and easy to ignore, it’s important to see your doctor if you have any concerns. This is especially crucial if you smoke or have other risk factors for lung cancer.

Symptom management

In addition to treating the lung cancer, your doctor can treat individual symptoms. There are a variety of medications to help control coughing.

In addition, there are a few things you can do on your own when you feel short of breath:

  • Change your positioning. Leaning forward makes it easier to breathe.
  • Concentrate on your breathing. Focus on the muscles that control your diaphragm. Purse your lips and breathe in rhythm.
  • Practice meditation. Anxiety can add to the problem, so choose a relaxing activity such as listening to your favorite music or meditating to keep calm.
  • Take a break. If you try to power through, you’ll overexert yourself and make matters worse. Save energy for the most important tasks, or ask someone else to pitch in when possible.

Lung cancer is a life threatening disease. Once you finish with treatment, it will take some time to fully recover. And you’ll still need regular checkups and follow-up testing to look for evidence of recurrence.

Early stage lung cancer has a better outlook than later stage lung cancer. But your individual outlook depends on many things, such as:

  • the particular type of lung cancer, including which genetic mutations are involved
  • whether you have other serious health conditions
  • the treatments you choose and how well you respond to them

5-year relative survival rates by the SEER database

Statistics on cancer are tracked by the SEER (Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results) database at the National Cancer Institute. This database doesn’t group cancers by the TNM system. Instead, it groups cancers into three stages:

  • Localized. Cancer is limited to one lung.
  • Regional. Cancer has moved from the lung to nearby lymph nodes or other nearby parts of the body.
  • Distant. Cancer has spread to the other lung or to other distant parts of the body.

Stage 1 lung cancer is classified in the SEER database as localized. The 5-year relative survival rates are as follows:

  • Localized NSCLC: 63 percent
  • Localized SCLC: 27 percent

Relative survival rate compares people with the same type and stage of cancer to people in the overall population, notes the American Cancer Society. Above, people who have localized NSCLC are, on average, about 63 percent as likely as people who don’t have that cancer to live for at least 5 years after being diagnosed.

These rates are only estimates and your experience will be unique to you. They can also be confusing, so speak with your doctor about your specific circumstances.

Your treatment options depend on a number of factors, including:

  • what type of lung cancer you have
  • what genetic mutations are involved
  • your general health, including other medical conditions
  • your age

If you have non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)

You’ll most likely need surgery to remove the cancerous part of your lung. This surgery may include removal of nearby lymph nodes to check for cancer cells. It’s possible that you won’t need any other treatment.

If you’re at high risk for recurrence, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy after surgery. Chemotherapy involves the use of powerful drugs that can destroy cancer cells near the surgical site or those that may have broken free of the original tumor. It’s usually given intravenously in cycles of 3 to 4 weeks.

If your body isn’t strong enough to withstand surgery, radiation therapy or radiofrequency ablation may be used as your primary treatment.

Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. It’s a painless procedure usually given 5 days a week for several weeks. Though it’s usually pain-free, there may be side effects. Your doctor can help you determine how to manage any symptoms.

Radiofrequency ablation uses high-energy radio waves to heat the tumor. Guided by imaging scans, a small probe is inserted through the skin and to the tumor. It can be performed under local anesthesia as an outpatient procedure.

Radiation therapy is also sometimes used as a secondary treatment to destroy cancer cells that may have been left behind after surgery.

Targeted drug therapies and immunotherapies are generally reserved for later-stage or recurrent lung cancer.

If you have small cell lung cancer (SCLC)

Treatment usually consists of chemotherapy if your health is stable enough for it. If cancer was found in the nearby lymph nodes, radiation therapy may be an option, often alongside chemotherapy.

Rarely, if there is only one small tumor that hasn’t spread, surgery may also be an option. Surgery would usually be followed by chemotherapy.

In about 50 percent of people with SCLC, lung cancer may spread to the brain. Radiation therapy to the head, or prophylactic cranial irradiation (PCI), may be given to prevent this.

Recurrence is cancer that comes back after you’ve had treatment and were considered to be cancer-free.

In one 2015 study, about one-third of people with stage 1a or 1b lung cancer had a recurrence. In lung cancer, distant metastasis is more likely than local recurrence.

Your doctor will schedule you for follow-up testing well after you finish treatment. In addition to physical examination, you might need periodic imaging tests and blood tests to monitor any changes.

You should also see your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms of recurrence:

  • new or worsening cough
  • coughing up blood
  • hoarseness
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • wheezing
  • unexplained weight loss

Other symptoms depend on where the cancer has recurred. For example, bone pain could signal the presence of cancer in your bones. New headaches could mean that cancer has recurred in the brain.

If you’re experiencing new or unusual symptoms, tell your doctor right away.

You may find that you’re able to cope better if you take an active role in your own care. Partner with your doctor and stay informed. Ask about the goals of each treatment, as well as potential side effects and how to handle them. Ask about any potential clinical trials as research is making strides. Be clear about your own wishes.

You don’t have to deal with lung cancer alone. Your family and friends probably want to be supportive but don’t always know how. That’s why they might say something like “let me know if you need anything.” Take them up on the offer with a specific request. This could be anything from accompanying you to an appointment to cooking a meal.

And, of course, don’t hesitate to reach out for additional support from social workers, therapists, clergy, or support groups. Your oncologist or treatment center can refer you to resources in your area.

For more information about lung cancer support and resources, visit: