Types of lung cancer

In general the disease is split into two main categories, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer.

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)

Approximately 85 in every 100 people with lung cancer have non-small cell making it the most common group. All types of NSCLC are potentially suitable for surgery if they are diagnosed at an early enough stage.

Types of non-small cell lung cancer:

This is a little more common in women and is more commonly seen in the outer parts of the lung. It develops from a particular type of cell that produces mucus (phlegm)
Large Cell Carcinoma
This type of lung cancer tends to grow quite quickly and often arises in the larger air passages. It has a tendency to spread outside the lung at an earlier stage.
Squamous Carcinoma
This is the most common type of primary lung cancer in the UK and often forms in the larger, more central airways.

Small cell lung cancer

Around 15 of every 100 people with lung cancer have small cell lung cancer.

This type of lung cancer is made up of small round cells that form fleshy lumps and usually start in the larger airways. This type of lung cancer cell reproduces and grows very quickly. It may spread to the lymph nodes and/or other organs in the body. Small cell lung cancer is generally more responsive to chemotherapy treatment than other treatments. However radiotherapy may also be used. In rare cases this type of lung cancer can be surgically removed. Small cell lung cancer often reoccurs within a short space of time, so it is usual for you to attend regular check-ups to ensure any reoccurrence is found quickly.

Other lung cancers

There are a variety of other cancers that can affect the lungs but most of them are rare. Mesothelioma, pancoast and carcinoid tumours are three of the more common types, and are detailed below.

It is closely associated with a history of asbestos exposure either through work or contact with a person in the asbestos industry. It generally affects older males and may take 35-40 years from the date of first exposure for the cancer to develop. The cancer cells usually positioned in the lining of the lung and often produce fluid. This may require draining from time to time, but may improve breathing.

Mesothelioma can be difficult to treat as it is often found when it is at an advanced stage. Patients should therefore discuss treatment options with their cancer doctor or lung cancer nurse specialist. Treatment may include chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery. Please note that financial compensation from the government may be available if lung damage from exposure to asbestos is proven.
Pancoast Tumour
This rare tumour grows at the top of the lung. Treatment is usually the same as the NSCLC and will depend on where the tumour is, the size of it and whether it has spread to other parts of the body.
Carcinoid Tumour
This is a rare tumour disease of the lung which is generally less aggressive than other types. The tumour develops from a special type of cells in the lung called neuroendocrine cells. Many carcinoid tumours can be cured by surgery but some are more aggressive and can spread to other parts of the body. In this case treatment with chemotherapy may be required.

Other tumours are so rare that current information is best given by your doctor or lung cancer nurse specialist. Below are some further unusual types of lung cancer:

  • Hamartoma.
  • Bronchial gland tumours.
  • Lymphoma.
  • Pleural fibroma.
  • Sarcoma.
Lung Cancer Spread (metastasis)
Although lung cancer frequently develops in a single area on the lung, it can also spread to other areas of the body. This is called metastasis or metastatic disease. It is usual for the lymph nodes near the centre of the chest to be affected first and from there the cancer can spread throughout the body's circulation.

The most common places for lung cancer to spread to are the lymph nodes, bones (including the spine), liver, adrenal glands, skin and the brain. It is important to find out if any spread is present at diagnosis as this will help in deciding which treatment is best for the patient.

The following symptoms are sometimes associated with lung cancer metastasis. Anyone with concerns about any symptoms, pain or changes following a lung cancer diagnosis should talk to their hospital doctor of lung cancer nurse specialist.
  • Frequent headaches
  • Blurring of vision
  • Pain in the bones, for example, ribs, legs, arms
  • Weakness/numbness in the legs
  • Sickness (especially in morning)
  • Fluid between the lung and it’s lining (pleural effusion)
  • Lumps on the skin


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