Factors That Affect Lung Cancer Survival Rates

Worried woman with cancer

KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Getty Images

There are a number of factors that affect lung cancer survival rates. Some of these are obvious, such as the stage of the cancer, but others are less well known, such as being your own advocate and addressing depression. That said, every person and every cancer is different, and it's often impossible to predict what may occur with an individual.

Lung cancer survival rates are difficult to talk about. Everyone is different, and it can feel bad reducing real people to statistics. That said, many people who are diagnosed with lung cancer—and their families—want some idea of what they can expect in the future. So we will share what we know about lung cancer survival rates by type of lung cancer and stage of lung cancer. But first, it is important to have an understanding of what survival rates mean, and the variables that make survival rate different for each individual.

Life Expectancy Definitions

It can be challenging to interpret some of the statistics available, since different measurements are often used.

Definition of Survival Rate

Survival rate is a measure of the percent of people that are alive after a certain period of time. For example, a 5-year survival rate of 15%, would mean that 15% or 15 out of 100 people diagnosed with a certain condition would be alive after 5 years.

Survival rates do not say anything about whether someone is cured or if their disease has progressed. They also do not take into account whether someone has completed treatment or is still undergoing therapy for their condition.

It is also important to note the timing of statistics describing survival rates. Many of these numbers are compiled from data that is several years old. Because of this, current survival rates fail to account for the many new treatments approved for lung cancer in recent years.

Definition of Median Survival

Sometimes, especially in a clinical trial or when the prognosis for a condition is poor, physicians will talk about median survival instead of survival rates. The median survival with a condition is the amount of time after which 50% of people have died and 50% are still alive. For example, if the median survival for a condition is 14 months, after 14 months 50% of the people would still be alive, and 50% of the people would have died.

Some Factors That Affect Lung Cancer Survival Rate

There are many factors that affect survival rates and median survival with lung cancer. Some of these include:

General Health

Overall health can affect survival rate with lung cancer. Someone who is healthy and with excellent lung function will most likely do better than someone with other serious medical conditions or poor lung function.

Sex

The survival rate for​ women with lung cancer is higher than that for men at all stages of the disease.

Race

The overall survival rate is lower for black men and women than for white men and women.

Continued Smoking after Diagnosis

In a 2016 study, smokers who received stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT or cyberknife) for early-stage non-small cell lung cancer had significantly higher overall survival rates if they quit smoking than those who did not. Smoking also increases the risk of other medical conditions that can lower survival rates.

Treatments Used

Survival rates are compiled from a large number of individuals with lung cancer, regardless of the treatment they underwent. Someone who is able to tolerate treatment would likely fair better than someone who is otherwise too ill to go through any treatment.

This difference has been highlighted in recent years as new treatments have become available. For example, for people who have stage IV ALK positive lung cancer and receive appropriate treatment (targeted therapy), a 2019 study found the median survival to be 6.8 years, even in the presence of brain metastases.

With immunotherapy, similar dramatic changes are sometimes seen, with some people who would have expected to live a year or less now achieving long-term control of their cancer.

Being Your Own Advocate

We don't have studies to prove that being your own advocate in your lung cancer care statistically improves survival, but spending some time among the lung cancer community makes this quite clear. It's not uncommon to meet people who had been in hospice and given a few weeks or months at most to live in the past, but are now living with their disease due to information they learned themselves.

At the current time, the diagnostic and treatment options for lung cancer are advancing so rapidly that it's hard for even lung cancer specialists to stay abreast of the latest research. Not everyone is currently being treated or even tested for some of the genomic alterations that can be present with lung cancer (such as EGFR, ALK, ROS1, BRAF, and more). In some cases, lung cancer survivors who are active in advocacy have a much deeper understanding of the testing and treatment options that community oncologists.

Addressing Depression

Depression is common with lung cancer, and we've learned that sometimes depression is related to inflammation. In this case, the treatment of depression includes medications to reduce inflammation. (Some physicians are now testing CRP in people with lung cancer to screen for inflammation-induced depression.)

Unfortunately, not everyone who is experiencing depression talks about their feelings and not all oncologists have time to explore this in depth. Not only can depression greatly reduce your quality of life, but the suicide rate is high among people with lung cancer. Surprisingly, suicides may occur in people who have a very good prognosis, and are most common in the early days after a diagnosis.

Contrary to common thought, asking about depression and suicide does not increase the risk.

Why Are Survival Rates Important

From a statistical standpoint, survival rates can give us information about how well we are doing with treating a disease like lung cancer. They can also let us know where more funding is needed.

For individuals, however, not everyone wants to know the survival rate for their disease. And that is okay. It is important to talk with your loved ones living with lung cancer before you share these statistics. Some people find statistics discouraging at a time when they need encouragement alone.

On the other hand, some people do want to know the “average” length of survival with their illness. Reasons cited may be that they won’t put off that trip they have been planning if their prognosis is poor, or that it will give them time to “get their affairs in order” for those who will be left behind. For others, it may aid in making treatment decisions. Does the amount of time a particular treatment prolongs life, outweigh the side-effects of the treatment?

A Word From Verywell

Survival rates are statistics and people are not. Looking at just some of the factors that influence survival rates makes this clearer. While the overall survival rate for lung cancer is not what we would wish, it is improving and treatments are both extending life and reducing side effects.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Roach MC, Rehman S, DeWees TA, et al. It's never too late: Smoking cessation after stereotactic body radiation therapy for non-small cell lung carcinoma improves overall survival. Practical Radiation Oncology. 2016. 6(1):12-8. doi:10.1016/j.prro.2015.09.005

  2. Pacheco J, Gao D, Smith D, et al. Natural History and Factors Associated with Overall Survival in Stage IV ALK Rearranged Non-Small-Cell Lung CancerJournal of Thoracic Oncology. 2019. 14(4):691-670. doi:10.1016/j.jtho.2018.12.014

Additional Reading