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Stage IV Lung Cancer: Survival Rates and Prognosis


Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN

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Types and Stages of Lung Cancer

The type and stage of your lung cancer will determine how your doctor approaches your treatment.
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Advanced lung cancer can be one of the more difficult types of cancer to treat successfully, but it’s important to keep in mind that our understanding of the disease is changing every day. Your prognosis, or outlook, depends on your body, the type of lung cancer you have, and the treatment plan that’s developed for you.

No one can tell you exactly how long you might live with stage 4 lung cancer. However, there’s a lot of research under way that might increase your long-term survival odds. It’s possible to look at statistics from past years to get an idea about average lung cancer survival rates, but keep in mind your individual situation is unique. A conversation with your doctor can help you better understand your individual outlook.

Survival Rates Are Slowly Improving

A cancer survival rate can tell you the percentage of people with a certain type of cancer who survive for a certain amount of time, usually five years. Lung cancer has lower survival rates than other types of cancer. Unfortunately, early stage lung cancer usually doesn’t cause any symptoms, and most lung cancers are diagnosed after they have already spread beyond the lungs. Since lung cancer is usually diagnosed in a more advanced stage, it makes effective treatment more difficult.

Lung cancer survival rates also depend on the type of cancer. There are two types of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). The first type, small cell lung cancer, causes around 13% of all lung cancers. Smoking has been shown to be a huge risk factor for developing this type of lung cancer. Nonsmokers almost never develop small cell lung cancer. Around 87% of lung cancer is diagnosed as NSCLC and tobacco remains the #1 risk factor for NSCLC as well.

The five-year survival rate for lung cancer patients has been improving, in part due to better cancer treatments. Now, up to 54% of patients are expected to live for five years if their lung cancer is caught early, before it has spread outside the lungs. If the cancer is diagnosed after it has spread to nearby organs in the chest, the survival rate is around 26%. In the case of late stage lung cancer that has spread widely throughout the body, five-year survival rates are hovering around 4%.

Hope Through Better Treatment Options

Even though the survival rate for advanced lung cancer is much lower than for early-stage lung cancers, there’s still hope in the form of new treatment options that are being investigated. Treatments are constantly changing as doctors discover new information about cancer. If you’re curious whether any new treatments might work for you, check with your doctor.

Several studies have been published recently that highlight new breakthroughs in cancer medications, including chemotherapeutic drugs, new combinations of existing chemotherapy drugs, and other types of medications like immunotherapy and targeted molecular therapy. These medications may cause tumors to stop growing or spreading by affecting blood vessels or certain proteins within the tumors. Results so far have been promising, and further research through clinical trials is continuing today.

There have also been improvements in the delivery of radiation therapy, which might be a good choice in your treatment plan. Some newer types of radiation machines are capable of more precisely targeting your cancer. This allows your doctor to deliver your radiation dose more accurately and without causing you so many side effects.

While it’s true stage 4 lung cancer survival rates are lower than survival rates for early-stage lung cancer, there’s still hope that new and developing treatments might be able to help you live a longer, fuller life after your diagnosis. Doctors continue to study lung cancer and are constantly working to find more effective treatments that can increase survival rates. If you have any questions about new treatments that could benefit you, ask your doctor about your individual situation and what options might be the best choice for you.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jan 25, 2017

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Medical References

  1. Cancer survival rate: What it means for your prognosis. Mayo Clinic.
  2. Key statistics for lung cancer. American Cancer Society.
  3. Lung Cancer Fact Sheet. American Lung Association.
  4. Cancer treatment and survivorship statistics, 2014. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, American Cancer Society.
  5. Chemotherapy for advanced stage non-small cell lung cancer. Seminars in Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery.
  6. Crizotinib Improves Progression-Free Survival in Some Patients with Advanced Lung Cancer (Updated). National Cancer Institute.
  7. Targeted therapy drugs for non-small cell lung cancer. American Cancer Society.
  8. What’s new in non-small cell lung cancer research? American Cancer Society.

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