Lung Cancer FAQ: Lung cancer types and treatments

Q: "What are the different types of lung cancer and what treatments are used for each type?"

A: There are several types of lung cancer. The two most common are small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Malignant mesothelioma and carcinoid (neuro-endocrine) tumors are also types of chest cancer that are less common.

Each type is discussed briefly here.

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC)
About 20 percent of all lung cancers are this type. It is named for the size of the cancer cells. Although each of the cells is small, they can multiply quickly and form large tumors, which can spread to lymph nodes and other organs. Small cell lung cancers are almost always caused by smoking. Other names for SCLC are oat cell carcinoma and small cell undifferentiated carcinoma. Chemotherapy and radiation are the best treatments for this type of lung cancer.

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)
This type of cancer accounts accounts for almost 80 percent of lung cancers. It includes three types:
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: About 30 percent of all lung cancers are of this type.
  • Adenocarcinoma: This type accounts for about 40 percent of lung cancers.
  • Large-cell undifferentiated carcinoma: This type of cancer accounts for about 10 percent of lung cancers.
All three types of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) respond similarly to the same treatments, so they are grouped together for staging and treatment purposes. Surgery alone can cure some patients with stages I-IIIA.

Surgery for NSCLC may be combined with chemotherapy and or radiation therapy, especially as the stage increases. For patients with stage III or IV disease, chemotherapy and radiation therapies are the best treatments for patients with good functional status.

Carcinoid/neuro-endocrine tumor
This is a type of lung cancer that develops from certain types of hormone-releasing cells. Often they are slow-growing and can be surgically removed with no further treatment. Occasionally these tumors recur and spread. In that case they are often treated with the same therapies used for small cell lung cancers.

This is a rare cancer of the mesothelium tissue that covers the inner chest cavity. Although it most commonly involves the chest, it is not a lung cancer. Mesothelioma usually occurs in people who have been exposed to asbestos.

Answers provided by Providence lung cancer experts.

Last updated: August 2002