Lung Cancer: Survival Rates and Prognosis

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If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with lung cancer, you’re not alone. In 2018, it’s expected almost 234,030 Americans will receive this diagnosis (121,680 men and 112,350 women). Lung cancer remains one of the most common cancers in America.  

Unfortunately, lung cancer long-term survival rates remain frustratingly low compared with other cancers. However, there are reasons for hope. Here’s what you need to know. 

Lung cancer death rates are dropping.

Lung cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer death in the United States–tops among men older than 40 and women over 60. About 83,550 men and 70,500 women (154,050 total) are expected to die from it in 2018.

However, the latest research from the American Cancer Society shows lung cancer death rates dropped 38% for men between 1990 and 2012. In the period from 2002 to 2012, women saw a 13% decrease in lung cancer deaths. In both cases, reduced tobacco use is credited for the drop. (Researchers note women have been slower to quit smoking than men.)

Five-year survival rates for lung cancer also have improved, from 12% in the mid-1970s to about 18% during 2005 to 2011–nearly a 50% increase, with the greatest impact on those ages 50 to 64. 

Lung cancer is deadlier than many other cancers.

Lung cancer’s 17.7% five-year survival rate is low compared with most other cancers, such as colon cancer (64.4%), breast cancer (89.7%) and prostate (98.6%).

Why? One big reason is lung cancer is too often caught too late, after it has spread to other, distant organs in the body. More than half (57%) of lung cancers aren’t found until they are at advanced stages, when five-year survival rates are 4%. 

When lung cancer can be diagnosed early, before it has spread, the five-year survival rate is about 55%. Yet only about 16%of lung cancers are caught this early. 

If the cancer is caught after it has spread to nearby organs but not to distant ones, the survival rate is 27%. However, only 22% of lung cancers are caught at this stage.

Different kinds of lung cancer have different prognoses.

In addition to staging, another factor affecting survival rate is the type of cancer. Lung cancer comes in two main types: small cell and non-small cell. 

Small cell lung cancer, also called oat cell cancer, is found in about 10-15% of lung cancer patients. It is highly associated with smoking and tends to spread quickly. Non-small cell lung cancer is much more common, making up about 80-85% of lung cancers. 

There are three main subtypes of non-small cell cancer:

  • Adenocarcinoma (40%) occurs mainly in smokers (current or former) but also is the type that non-smokers are most likely to acquire; it is more common in women and younger people; and it tends to grow more slowly than other lung cancers.

  • Squamous or epidermoid (25-30%) is linked to a history of smoking

  • Large cell or undifferentiated (10-15%) tends to grow and spread more quickly, and can be more difficult to treat.

New treatments and tools provide reasons for hope.

Keep in mind current survival statistics are based on patients who were treated years ago–before 2013. Some of today’s newest therapies and treatments have not yet been included in these analyses. 

For example, promising new drugs are now being used that identify your cancer’s genes, proteins or tissue environment and provide targeted treatment. New immunotherapy drugs are another part of the picture, particularly in the treatment of squamous cell lung cancer.

Lung cancer screening tools–in particular, spiral computerized tomography (CT) scans–can find cancer early in at-risk people, such as smokers older than 55. (For more information about screening programs, visit the American Lung Association.)

As fewer people smoke, fewer will develop lung cancer, both from primary and secondary smoke. About 80-90% of lung cancers are caused by smoking, so reducing tobacco use will continue to boost lung cancer survival.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Feb 14
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