Lung Cancer Facts You Need to Know

Lung cancer is one of the most commonly occurring kinds of cancer and the leading cause of cancer deaths in men and women worldwide. Despite its commonality, many people are not well-informed about this deadly disease.

This article includes recent statistics and reliable facts about lung cancer—including who’s most at risk, survival rates, and more—and discusses screening, treatment, and common myths.

Symptoms and Signs of Lung Cancer

Verywell / Dennis Madamba

Lung Cancer At-a-Glance

According to the World Health Organization, there were 2.21 million new cases of lung cancer and 1.8 million lung cancer deaths in 2020, making it the most deadly cancer worldwide.

Here is a brief overview of lung cancer statistics in the United States:

  • Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death, making up almost 25% of all cancer deaths.
  • Most people are above age 65 when diagnosed, with 70 being the average age of a diagnosis. Very few people get a diagnosis before age 45.
  • The lifetime risk of women developing lung cancer is one in 17.
  • The lifetime risk of men developing lung cancer is one in 15.
  • Black men are 15% more likely to develop lung cancer than White men.
  • Black women are 14% less likely to develop lung cancer compared with White women.

The five-year relative survival rate for non-small cell lung cancer based on the state at diagnosis is:

  • Localized: 63%
  • Regional: 35%
  • Distance: 7%

The five-year relative survival rate for small cell lung cancer based on the state at diagnosis is:

  • Localized: 27%
  • Regional: 16%
  • Distance: 3%

What Is Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the lungs. There are different types of lung cancer that affect the symptoms, treatment, and prognosis. If you’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer and are feeling worried, learning more about this disease can help you navigate your options for treatment, care, and support.

Lung Structure and Function

The lungs are sponge-like organs in your chest. They are responsible for bringing oxygen into your body when you inhale and removing carbon dioxide when you exhale.

When air is inhaled, it enters the mouth or nose, travels through the trachea (windpipe), and enters tubes called bronchi, which enter the lungs. The bronchi are divided into smaller bronchi, which are further divided into even smaller branches called bronchioles. At the end of the bronchioles are alveoli—tiny air sacs that absorb oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from your blood.

Lung cancer typically starts in the cell’s lining, the bronchi, and parts of the lung such as the bronchioles or alveoli. The lung cancer cells divide uncontrollably, leading to tumors that grow within the lungs and the pleura (membrane) surrounding the lungs. These tumors can metastasize (spread) to other parts of the body.

Lung cancer, illustration

Roger Harris / Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Causes and Risk Factors

Risk factors are anything that can increase the chance of getting a disease. Risk factors for lung cancer include:

  • Cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoking
  • Secondhand smoke
  • Radon exposure
  • Family history (genetics)
  • Lung diseases
  • HIV infection
  • Environmental and occupational risk factors (air pollution, radiation, asbestos, diesel exhaust, and some forms of silica and chromium)
  • Beta carotene supplements in heavy smokers
  • Arsenic (found primarily in drinking water from private wells)

The Number One Risk Factor

Tobacco smoking is by far the most important risk factor and related to nine out of 10 cases of lung cancer in men and eight out of 10 cases in women. Not smoking, avoiding secondhand smoke, or quitting smoking can help decrease your risk for developing lung cancer.

Types of Lung Cancer

There are two main types of lung cancer: non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC).

types of lung cancer

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Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common form and accounts for 80% to 85% of all lung cancer cases. This cancer is staged from 1-4 depending on how much it has grown or spread in the body. Symptoms, treatment, and prognosis differ depending on the stage.

Non-small cell lung cancer arises from the epithelial cells. The subtypes are determined based on where the cancer cells originate. The most common and main subtypes of NSCLC are:

  • Adenocarcinoma: Starts in mucus-secreting cells
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: Starts in squamous cells, cells lining the inside of the lungs
  • Large cell carcinoma: Starts in any part of the lung

The types are grouped together based on their similar treatment and prognoses. There are many associated risks for developing NSCLC beyond smoking, including genetics, radon, and even infectious diseases.

Small cell lung cancer accounts for approximately 15% of lung cancer cases. It is a fast-growing cancer that is strongly associated with heavy smoking.

While the exact cause of developing small cell lung cancer is not known, lifestyle factors such as exposure to tobacco, radon, and other hazardous chemicals are associated with increased risk.

Treatment and prognosis of small cell lung cancer depend on the stage at diagnosis. It can be classified as:

  • Limited-stage disease: Cancerous cells are contained locally in the chest and surrounding lymph nodes, and can be treated using a single radiation field.
  • Extensive-stage disease: Cancerous cells have spread beyond the chest area.

SCLC tends to be more difficult to cure because it is usually diagnosed when the cancer is at the extensive-stage disease. Only 30% of of patients diagnosed with SCLC will be diagnosed at the limited-stage disease.

Symptoms and Signs

Initially, lung cancer affects the respiratory system, but it can spread to distant areas and many of the body’s systems. During the initial stages, patients typically do not exhibit symptoms, or they have symptoms that are so general that lung cancer is not suspected.

Typical signs and symptoms of lung cancer include a persistent cough, shortness of breath, or coughing up blood. Other symptoms that may indicate lung cancer include hoarseness; back, chest, or shoulder pain; repeated respiratory infections; feeling tired or weak; loss of appetite; or unexplained weight loss.

Signs and symptoms that the lung cancer has already spread to other parts of the body include bone pain, nervous system changes (if cancer spreads to the brain), yellowing skin and eyes (if cancer spreads to the liver), and swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck or collarbone.

Screening for Lung Cancer

Screening for lung cancer is important before you exhibit any symptoms. At this stage, early detection is possible and leads to a better prognosis than when the cancer has spread.

Doctors use a screening test for lung cancer called low-dose computed tomography (low-dose CT scan or LDCT), the only recommended screening test for lung cancer. During the exam, an X-ray machine is used to create an image of your lungs. This brief exam is recommended for patients who exhibit no symptoms but are at high risk.

Who’s at High Risk?

LDCT is recommended for people who:

  • Have a 20 pack-year or more smoking history, and
  • Smoke now or have quit within the past 15 years, and
  • Are between 50 and 80 years old.

A pack-year is defined by smoking an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for one year.

If lung cancer is suspected, further procedures may be recommended to confirm or rule out the diagnosis. Procedures include:

  • Physical exam: Symptoms may include abnormal lung sounds, enlarged lymph nodes, unintentional weight loss, and clubbing of fingernails.
  • Imaging: Such as a chest x-ray, CT scan, MRI, or PET scan to see if there are abnormal masses
  • Lung biopsy: To confirm if it is cancer and the type of cancer
  • Labs and tests: To determine how well the lungs are functioning or any biochemical abnormalities that suggest the cancer has spread (Note: This is not a diagnostic test, but can help confirm the diagnosis.)

Non-small cell lung cancer is staged 0-4, while small cell lung cancer is much more aggressive and may not be found until it has already spread.

Treatment for Lung Cancer

Treatment for lung cancer depends on the type of cancer, its stage, and if the patient is healthy enough to undergo the recommended procedure.

Depending on the goal of treatment (to cure, control, stop the spread, reduce symptoms, or improve quality of life), types of treatment may include one or a combination of:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapies
  • Immunotherapies
  • Lifestyle
  • Clinical trial

Treatment for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

The treatment for non-small cell lung cancer depends on the stage and subtype of the disease. Early-stage NSCLC may be treated with surgery or radiation therapy, while advanced cancers are treated with targeted therapies, immunotherapies, or chemotherapies.

Once a diagnosis has been confirmed, it is important to meet with a lung cancer specialist to determine the best course of action.

Treatment for Small Cell Lung Cancer

Due to the aggressive nature of small cell lung cancer, treatment is initially effective, but the results may not last and the cancer may begin growing again.

If diagnosed very early before the cancer has spread, surgery may be effective. However, as the cancer spreads rapidly, often to the brain, a combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy maybe used to treat extensive stage disease.

When Treatment Is Not an Option

As lung cancer often goes undetected until it is in more extensive stages, you may consider no treatment moving forward. Depending on the prognosis, you may elect to forgo lung cancer treatment and focus on improving your quality of life.

Myths About Lung Cancer

It’s important to know the facts from myths about lung cancer.

Myth 1: Only smokers get lung cancer.

While tobacco smoke is the leading cause and related to 80% to 90% of lung cancer deaths, nonsmokers can also be diagnosed with lung cancer. There are many other causes including:

  • Secondhand smoke
  • Radon exposure
  • Occupational carcinogen exposure
  • Medical radiation
  • Lung disease
  • Medical conditions
  • Infections

Myth 2: Lung cancer is always fatal.

Given screening, early detection, and treatment, a lung cancer diagnosis does not mean an automatic death sentence. Early detection, by low-dose CT screening, can decrease lung cancer mortality by 14% to 20% among high-risk populations. It is possible to become lung cancer-free if treatment is successful.

Only 17% of people with lung cancer receive the diagnosis at the earliest stage, when the disease is most treatable. If you suspect you are at high risk, speak to your doctor about screening for lung cancer.

Myth 3: Lung cancer only affects the elderly.

Lung cancer is typically associated with the elderly, as the typical age of diagnosis is 70. Approximately 53% of cases occur in adults 55 to 74, and 10% of lung cancers occur in people under 55. Only 1.4% of cases occur in adults under age 35.

Myth 4: Smoking e-cigarettes or vaping is safe.

In recent years, there has been a rise in the popularity of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) or vaping, especially among young adults. While e-cigarettes were seen as a promising tool for smoking cessation, there is increasing concern that vaping is also dangerous and can increase the risk for lung cancer.

What Are E-Cigarettes?

E-cigarettes are electronic devices that heat a liquid and produce an aerosol, or mix of small particles in the air.

A Word From Verywell

While lung cancer is one of the most common and deadly diseases, you can take action to prevent yourself or your loved ones from becoming a statistic.

Given the facts about lung cancer, take steps to be proactive with your health and get screened early if you know that you may be at high risk. With early detection, you may be able to take appropriate steps with the recommendations from your trusted health provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What percentage of smokers get lung cancer?

    Men smokers have a 14.8% lifetime risk of getting lung cancer, whereas women have an 11.2% lifetime risk of getting lung cancer, according to a 2018 study.

  • Is lung cancer genetic?

    An estimated 8% of lung cancer cases are linked to a genetic predisposition (compared with 80% to 90% of cases linked to smoking). Having family members diagnosed may increase your risk, as may some inherited genetic mutations, but it does not guarantee that you will develop the disease. Research suggests that genetics are more likely to play a role in developing lung cancer for people under 50 years old, females, and those who have never smoked.

  • What does lung cancer feel like?

    Symptoms of lung cancer can vary from patient to patient. For some, it may feel like a persistent cough or respiratory infection, shortness of breath, or shoulder, arm, chest, or back pain.

  • What is the life expectancy of lung cancer patients?

    The life expectancy of lung cancer patients varies from months to years following a diagnosis. This can depend on the stage of cancer; the patient’s age, sex, and smoking and performance status; the type of lung cancer; and the course of treatment.

19 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rebecca Valdez, MS, RDN
Rebecca Valdez is a registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition communications consultant, passionate about food justice, equity, and sustainability.