Understanding Stage 4 Lung Cancer Life Expectancy

Prognosis After Lung Cancer Has Spread

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Perhaps the most common question we are asked is: "What is stage 4 lung cancer life expectancy?” Not unexpected, since 40 percent of people have already progressed to stage 4 at the time they are diagnosed. Before answering the question, though, it is important to talk a little about how the answer—the statistical answer—is derived.

Variables That Affect Lung Cancer Survival

Stage 4 lung cancer life expectancy can vary considerably among different people.

Some of these variables include:

  • Your particular lung cancer type and location - Stage 4 lung cancer encompasses several lung cancer types and includes cancers that have spread to only one distant region or those that have spread extensively. Survival can also be affected by the genetic characteristics of the tumor, with cancers that have "targetable mutations," such as ALK-positive lung cancer, ROS1 mutations, and EGFR mutations, being more likely to respond to the newer targeted therapies for lung cancer.
  • Your age - Younger people tend to live longer than older people with lung cancer. (Lung cancer in young adults is different in many ways.)
  • Your sex - The life expectancy for a woman 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 chemotherapy, surgery, targeted therapies, immunotherapy, 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 may lower stage 4 lung cancer life expectancy.
  • Complications of lung cancer - Complications such as blood clots can lower stage 4 lung cancer life expectancy.
  • Where your lung cancer has spread - Lung cancer can spread to nearly any region of the body, but most commonly spreads to the brain, the bones, the liver, and the adrenal glands. As noted below, when only a few lung cancer brain metastases or liver metastases are present, treatment with the goal of long-term survival is sometimes possible.


In addition to variations between different people, it is important to keep in mind that statistics are frequently based on people treated a few years back. For example, the most recent statistics we have for lung cancer from 2015 are based on people diagnosed with lung cancer between 2007 and 2011. Since that time, new treatments have been approved for people with advanced lung cancer, and even more treatments are being studied in clinical trials. 

That said, the median stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer life expectancy (the time at which 50 percent of patients are alive and 50 percent have passed away) is only around eight months. The five-year survival rate—that is, the percent of people who are expected to be alive five years after a diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer—is sadly only 4 percent.

While these numbers sound low, there are many people who are long-term survivors of stage 4 lung cancer. At the 2016 HOPE Summit in Washington, D.C. (a wonderful group of lung cancer survivors that anyone can become a part of), photos confirmed not only a group of over 300 lung cancer survivors who are thriving with lung cancer, but a double digit number group of people who have survived stage 4 disease for at least 10 years. Remember: You are not a statistic. There is hope, and it is not false hope.

Managing Lung Cancer That Has Spread (Stage 4)

One last thing is very important to keep in mind.

While stage 4 lung cancer is not usually curable, it is treatable. These treatments may not only improve survival but help with the symptoms of lung cancer as well.

For some people, the approval of two immunotherapy drugs in 2015 (and other medications in this category being evaluated in clinical trials) suggests that for some people, long-term control of the disease for some people with advanced lung cancer may be possible. For people with targeted mutations, switching to newly developed drugs when tumors become resistant suggests that for some people, advanced lung cancer may be treated as a chronic disease, such as diabetes in the future.

Another recent advance for lung cancer that has spread is the treatment of "oligometastases." When a single—or only a few—metastases are present, for example, in the brain or the liver, techniques such as stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) may be used to eliminate these metastases. This technique has even resulted in long-term survival for some people with brain metastases from lung cancer.

What Can You Do to Improve Your Survival?

After many years of little progress in the treatment of lung cancer, options for treating and personalizing lung cancer care have increased exponentially. What this means is that it is hard for anyone—even an oncologist who specializes in cancer—to be aware of every new advance and clinical trial being conducted around the globe.

Studies suggest that people who learn as much about their cancer and become their own advocate in their cancer care may have better outcomes. An excellent way to not only receive support but to find out about the latest advances in treatment is to become involved in a lung cancer support group or support community. The hashtag for these groups is #LCSM, which stands for lung cancer social media. In addition, several of the lung cancer organizations have joined together to provide a free clinical trial matching service for those living with lung cancer.

Take a moment to check out these tips on advocating for yourself as a cancer patient whether you are living with lung cancer yourself or facing lung cancer together with a loved one.


American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts and Figures 2015. Atlanta: American Cancer Society; 2015. https://www.cancer.org/content/dam/cancer-org/research/cancer-facts-and-statistics/annual-cancer-facts-and-figures/2015/cancer-facts-and-figures-2015.pdf.

American Cancer Society. Lung Cancer (Non-Small Cell.) Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Survival Rates by Stage.  https://www.cancer.org/cancer/non-small-cell-lung-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/survival-rates.html.

National Cancer Institute. Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (PDQ). Stage IV Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. https://www.cancer.gov/types/lung/hp/non-small-cell-lung-treatment-pdq#section/all.