Understanding Stage 2 Lung Cancer Life Expectancy

A common question when someone is diagnosed with stage 2 non-small cell lung cancer is about life expectancy. This isn’t unexpected, given the overall low survival rate from lung cancer. Before answering the question, though, it is important to talk a little about how the answer—the statistical answer—is derived. Also, make sure to read to the bottom of this article. Lung cancer treatments are improving and survival is increasing.

Variables Affecting Stage 2 Prognosis

Stage 2 lung cancer life expectancy can vary considerably among different people. Statistics tell us about "average" people, but nobody is average. Some of these variables include:

  • Your particular lung cancer type and location: Stage 2 lung cancer encompasses several lung cancer types and includes cancers that are small but have spread to nearby lymph nodes, or larger but have not spread to any lymph nodes.
  • Your age: Younger people tend to live longer than older people with lung cancer.
  • Your sex: The life expectancy for women with lung cancer is higher at each stage of lung cancer.
  • Your general health at the time of diagnosis: Being healthy overall at the time of diagnosis is associated with a longer life expectancy, and a greater ability to withstand treatments that may extend survival.
  • How you respond to treatment: Side effects of treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapies, and radiation therapy vary among different people and may limit your ability to tolerate treatment.
  • Other health conditions you may have: Health conditions such as emphysema or heart disease may lower stage 2 lung cancer life expectancy.
  • Complications of lung cancer: Complications such as blood clots can lower survival.
  • Smoking: Continued smoking after a diagnosis of stage 2 lung cancer appears to lower survival. We hesitate to bring up smoking as our goal is to rid the world of the stigma of lung cancer (and because there are clearly more nonsmokers than smokers who are diagnosed with the disease) but if you do smoke, it is important to quit.

Statistics and a Caveat

The overall survival rate, that is the percent of people who are expected to be alive five years after a diagnosis of stage 2 lung cancer is approximately 33%. For individuals with large tumors that have not yet spread to any lymph nodes, the survival rate may be somewhat higher. 

We share the statistics about lung cancer survival because many people ask this question, but there are several things you need to keep in mind. Statistics are numbers that are derived by looking back in time to see how people did with a certain type of cancer. In other words, they are often several years old. Considering that newer treatments have been developed since those numbers were recorded, survival rates don't tell us anything about how someone will do given the new treatments we have.

There were more new treatments approved for the treatment of lung cancer in the period between 2011 and 2015 than had been approved in the 40-year period prior to 2015.

In addition to these new treatments, there are many more treatments being evaluated in clinical trials, and these clinical trials are offering some people the chance to stay alive that they would not have had even one or two years ago. We hear often from people who, through participating in lung cancer support groups and communities and being their own advocate in their cancer care, have found clinical trials that even their community oncologists were not yet aware of. After all, who is more motivated to research their disease than someone living with it each and every day?

Lung Cancer Survival Is Improving

It's important to note that survival for lung cancer, after little change in many years, is improving. It's not just the treatments that are improving.

If you have been diagnosed with lung cancer, make sure you talk to your doctor about molecular profiling (genetic testing) of your tumor. Targeted therapies for people with EGFR mutations, ROS1 rearrangements, and ALK rearrangements have been changing the face of lung cancer. Immunotherapy is also making a difference with two new medications approved in 2015, even for people with advanced cancers. Be your own advocate. Learn about your disease. Become a part of the lung cancer community online.

Quality of Life Is Improving

When we look at progress with lung cancer, survival is usually the first thing that comes to mind. Yet significant advances have also been made in the quality of life for people living with lung cancer.

For people with stage 2 lung cancer, surgery is often the treatment of choice (plus or minus adjuvant treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation). In the past, lung cancer surgery was done routinely via a thoracotomy, a large surgical incision in the chest involving separation of the ribs. At the present time, many people are now able to have minimally invasive surgery as an alternative.

With video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS), several small incisions are made in the chest wall and the cancerous part of the lung (or lobe) is removed with the use of special instruments.

People who have VATS are usually hospitalized for a shorter period of time and are less likely to develop post-thoracotomy pain syndrome.

For those who have radiation therapy after surgery, treatment is also improving. Newer radiation techniques result in less damage to normal tissue.

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