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Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer


Updated August 14, 2014

Business executives smoking in front of an office building
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Non-small cell lung cancer accounts for at least 80% of lung cancers in the United States. It does not spread as rapidly as small cell lung cancer, but is still frequently diagnosed after a surgical cure is not possible. Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, but factors other than smoking are more likely to contribute to this type of lung cancer. There are 3 primary types of non-small cell lung cancer.

Types of Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer


Adenocarcinoma is the most common form of non-small cell lung cancer accounting for up to 50% of cases in the United States. It is usually the type of lung cancer found in non-smokers, and is the most common type seen in women. It starts in the periphery of the lungs and can be present for a long time before it is detected. A less common form of adenocarcinoma is bronchioloalveolar carcinoma (BAC). This type of lung cancer arises in the small air sacs in the lungs. It responds fairly well to some of the new lung cancer treatments called targeted therapies.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Lungs

Squamous cell carcinoma used to be more common, but now accounts for roughly 30% of non-small cell lung cancers in the United States. It usually starts in the bronchial tubes, centrally in the lungs, and commonly is found after individuals begin to cough up blood (hemoptysis). It has been speculated that filtered cigarettes have caused the decline in squamous cell lung cancer and that adenocarcinoma is more common now since toxins are inhaled deeper into the lungs.

Large Cell Carcinoma of the Lungs

Large cell cancers are less common accounting for up to 10% of non-small cell lung cancers in the United States. They occur in the outer edges of the lungs and tend to grow rapidly.

Rare Forms of Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Less common types of non-small cell lung cancer include:

  • Pleomorphic tumors
  • Carcinoid tumors
  • Salivary gland carcinoma
  • Unclassified non-small cell lung cancer


Symptoms, Treatment, and Prognosis by Stage

Since symptoms and treatment vary considerable according to the stage of non-small cell cancer, it is helpful to break the discussion down into stages:


American Cancer Society. Lung Cancer (Non-Small Cell.) Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Survival Rates by Stage. 04/30/2014. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/lungcancer-non-smallcell/detailedguide/non-small-cell-lung-cancer-survival-rates

National Institute of Health. Medline Plus. Lung Cancer. Updated 09/17/12. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/lungcancer.html

College of American Pathologists. Lung Cancer. Lung Adenocarcinoma. Accessed 10/30/12. http://www.cap.org/apps/docs/reference/myBiopsy/lung_adenocarcinoma.html.

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