What You Can Expect During Early Stage Lung Cancer

Physical and Emotional Changes to Anticipate

Facing a lung cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming and scary. Many patients experience a wide range of emotions, including fear, hope, sadness, anger, and uncertainty about the future.

This article will explain what you can expect emotionally and physically if you have been diagnosed with stage 1 lung cancer, as well as some tips for coping. 

Son comforts father who has lung cancer

AsiaVision / Getty Images

Stage 1 Characteristics  

Stage 1 lung cancer is when small tumors are contained within the lungs and have not metastasized (spread) to nearby or distant organs or tissue.

Lung cancer stages describe the size and location of the tumor and how far cancer has spread within the body. Staging helps healthcare providers and cancer specialists called oncologists to develop your treatment protocol and give a general idea of your prognosis (likely outcome). 

Physical Symptoms 

Stage 1 non-small cell lung cancer is small and contained within the lungs, and many patients do not have symptoms indicating cancer is present. Others do experience symptoms including:

Types and Stages

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common form of the disease, accounting for 84% of all cases.

It is staged on a scale of 0 to 4 using the TNM classification system. This model is based on the size and extent of the primary tumor (T), the number of nearby lymph nodes cancer has spread to (N), and whether cancer has metastasized (M).

Stage 1 means your cancer is small and has not spread outside the lungs. It divides into substages:

  • 1A: The tumor is 3 centimeters or smaller.
  • 1B: The tumor is between 3 and 4 centimeters.

Tumor growth in stage 1 lung cancer can affect the primary airway for the lungs (bronchus), the inner lining of the lung (visceral pleura), and other areas of the lung that may lead to the collapse of a lung (atelectasis).

Small-cell lung cancer (SCLC), also known as oat cell cancer, is less common and accounts for approximately 15% of cases.

SCLC breaks down into these two stages:

  • Limited-stage: Cancer is contained within one lung and may or may not have spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Extensive stage: Cancer may affect both lungs and has spread to the lymph nodes and other areas of the body.

Using the TNM staging system, stages 0–3 are considered limited-stage SCLC. Approximately 2 out of 3 people with SCLC have extensive stage SCLC (stage 4) when their cancer is diagnosed.

Can Early-Stage Lung Cancer Be Cured?

Lung cancer is most treatable when detected in its early stages. The cure rate for lung cancer detected and treated early is as high as 90%.

Factors Affecting Treatment Response

There are many factors that can influence how you will respond to treatment, including: 

  • Age: Younger people have a higher chance of responding well to treatment. 
  • Sex: Women tend to respond more positively to lung cancer treatments.
  • Preexisting medical conditions: People with other medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, or other lung diseases, tend to have lower survival rates.
  • Smoking: People who quit smoking have higher survival rates than those who continue smoking.

Many healthcare providers hesitate to say that lung cancer is ever truly cured despite successful treatment. There is a chance for lung cancer to recur even if you’ve been in remission for years.

Healthcare providers may use the term “no evidence of disease” (NED) instead of saying cancer is cured. NED means that imaging tests cannot detect cancer in the body, and the patient is symptom-free.

Coping Through Emotional Changes 

A lung cancer diagnosis can affect your mental health. Anxiety, depression, distress, anger, and fear are all common emotional experiences after a life-changing diagnosis.

Finding healthy ways to cope with the emotional changes you’re going through is important. You may find it helpful to:

  • Acknowledge your feelings: Be honest with yourself and others about how you’re feeling.
  • Join a lung cancer support group: Online and in-person lung cancer support groups help you connect with others who are going through similar experiences.
  • Journal: Writing your thoughts and feelings can help you process your emotions and experiences.
  • Maintain healthy lifestyle habits: Eat a balanced, nutritious diet, engage in physical activity/exercise, and aim to sleep seven to nine hours a night. 
  • Lean on loved ones: Ask for support from family and friends and tell them what you need. That may be a listening ear, a hug, a shared meal, or doing something fun together to take your mind off cancer. 
  • Practice relaxation techniques: Meditation, mindfulness, and breathwork may help reduce stress and anxiety. 
  • Talk with your cancer care team: Your healthcare providers can connect you with mental health specialists to help you cope with physical and emotional changes.

Techniques for Better Breathing

Shortness of breath (dyspnea) is a common lung cancer symptom. Simple breathing techniques may help you manage dyspnea and breathe a little easier. A method to try is:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing (belly breathing): Lie on your back with one hand on your upper chest and the other below your rib cage. Inhale slowly through your nose; your abdomen should rise, and your chest should be still. Repeat as needed.

This technique reduces stress and anxiety:

  • Pursed-lip breathing: Keep your lips pressed tightly together, leaving the center slightly loose. Inhale slowly through your nose for two counts and exhale slowly through the center of your mouth for four counts.

Treatment Options and Progression

Surgery is the first-line treatment for most stage 1 non-small cell lung cancers. Depending on the size and location of the tumor, your healthcare provider may perform one of the following surgical procedures:

  • Segmentectomy: Removal of the tumor and a small part of the lung tissue around the tumor
  • Lobectomy: Removal of the tumor and part of the lobe around the tumor
  • Sleeve resection: Removal of the tumor and a small piece of the airway tube (bronchi) around the tumor

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be a part of your treatment plan if surgery is not an option.

The standard line of treatment for small-cell lung cancer is chemotherapy combined with radiation. Very few people with limited-stage SCLC get surgery.

Surgery outcomes for stage 1 lung cancer vary. In some cases, it may remove all traces of cancer, while at other times it may require ongoing treatments to prevent cancer from metastasizing to other parts of the body. 

For Loved Ones 

Learning that a family member or friend has lung cancer can be jarring. You may feel fear, shock, anger, and be unsure about how to support your loved one with cancer

Consider the following strategies to help you cope:

  • Ask for support: You don’t have to go through this alone. Ask family and friends to help share the load of your daily responsibilities or provide emotional support. Your loved one’s healthcare team is also there to provide resources.
  • Join a caregiver support group: Online and in-person cancer caregiver support groups can provide a community of others who understand what you’re going through.
  • Take cancer breaks: Taking breaks from thinking about cancer is important for your mental health. Seek out fun activities and carve out time for relaxation alone or with a friend.
  • Take care of yourself: Eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep, stay hydrated, and practice stress reduction techniques, like meditation or exercise.

Care After Stage 1 Remission

You are in remission if you’ve been cancer-free for one month or more, but lung cancer care doesn’t end there. Your healthcare team will continue to see you for follow-up care in the months and years after you’ve completed treatment. The following may be required from time to time:

  • Blood work
  • Cancer rehabilitation to help you regain control of your health
  • Counseling
  • Imaging tests, such as a computed tomography (CT) scan or a positron-emission tomography (PET) scan 
  • Regular physical examinations

Monitoring for lung cancer recurrence is an integral part of follow-up care.

Likelihood of Recurrence 

Lung cancer recurrence means cancer has returned to the lungs or another area of the body. An estimated 30% to 50% of lung cancer patients will experience a recurrence.

The three different types of lung cancer recurrence are:

  • Local: Cancer has returned in the lung.
  • Regional: Cancer has been detected in the lymph nodes around the lung.
  • Metastatic: Cancer has spread to distant parts of the body.

Lung cancer progression or recurrence typically affects the following areas in the body:


Stage 1 lung cancer is when small tumors are detected within the lung and have not spread to nearby lymph nodes or other body areas. Lung cancer detected in its early stages is most responsive to treatment, and many people with the diagnosis go on to live cancer-free. A lung cancer diagnosis can impact both your physical and emotional health. Prioritize care for your mental health throughout cancer treatment and beyond.

A Word From Verywell 

A lung cancer diagnosis can leave you with many questions, intense emotions, and uncertainty about the future. Ask your healthcare provider about what to expect regarding treatment and support options. Many people with lung cancer benefit from support groups with peers who share similar experiences. Talk with your healthcare provider if you have ongoing anxiety and depression. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does stage 1 lung cancer feel like?

    Many people with stage 1 lung cancer do not experience symptoms. Those who do may experience a persistent cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, and frequent lung infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia. 

  • Are all stage 1 cancer diagnoses related to smoking?

    Smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, but it isn’t the only cause. Nonsmokers who have been exposed to secondhand smoke, air pollution, asbestos or radon can also get lung cancer. 

  • How do stage 1 lung cancer symptoms differ in men and women?

    Women are more likely to develop lung cancer affecting the outer edges of the lungs. Common symptoms of lung cancer in women include appetite loss, fatigue, insomnia, and shortness of breath. Men are more likely to develop tumors within the airways (bronchi), which cause symptoms like bloody phlegm, coughing, and recurrent airway infections, such as bronchitis.

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