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Information about Lung cancer (non-small cell)

What is it?

This is a summary of information about this condition. For more detailed information we recommend using the NHS Choices website, A link to this can be found in the External Resources tab above.

Lung cancer is one of the most common and serious types of cancer. Around 44,500 people are diagnosed with the condition every year in the UK.

Cancer that begins in the lungs is called primary lung cancer. Cancer that spreads to the lungs from another place in the body is known as secondary lung cancer.

There are two main types of primary lung cancer. These are classified by the type of cells in which the cancer starts. They are:
  • non-small-cell lung cancer – the most common type, accounting for more than 80% of cases; can be either squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma or large-cell carcinoma
  • small-cell lung cancer – a less common type that usually spreads faster than non-small-cell lung cancer
The type of lung cancer diagnosed determines which treatments are recommended.

What causes it?

Lung cancer mainly affects older people. It's rare in people younger than 40, and the rates of lung cancer rise sharply with age. Lung cancer is most commonly diagnosed in people aged 70-74.

Although people who have never smoked can develop lung cancer, smoking is the main cause (accounting for over 85% of cases). This is because smoking involves regularly inhaling a number of different toxic substances.

What are the symptoms and signs?

There are usually no signs or symptoms in the early stages of lung cancer, but many people with the condition eventually develop symptoms including:
  • a persistent cough
  • coughing up blood
  • persistent breathlessness
  • unexplained tiredness and weight loss
  • an ache or pain when breathing or coughing

What treatments are available?

Treatment plans depends on whether you have non-small-cell lung cancer or small-cell lung cancer.

Non-small-cell lung cancer
If you have non-small-cell lung cancer that's confined to one lung and you're in good general health, you'll probably have surgery to remove the cancerous cells. This may be followed by a course of chemotherapy to destroy any cancer cells that may have remained in the body.

If the cancer hasn't spread too far but surgery isn't possible (for example, if your general health means you have an increased risk of developing complications), radiotherapy to destroy the cancerous cells will usually be recommended. In some cases, this may be combined with chemotherapy (known as chemoradiotherapy).

If the cancer has spread too far for surgery or radiotherapy to be effective, chemotherapy is usually recommended. If the cancer starts to grow again after initial chemotherapy treatment, another course of treatment may be recommended.

In some cases, a treatment called biological or targeted therapy may be recommended as an alternative to chemotherapy, or after chemotherapy. Biological therapies are medications that can control or stop the growth of cancer cells. 

Small-cell lung cancer
Small-cell lung cancer is usually treated with chemotherapy, either on its own or in combination with radiotherapy. This can help to prolong life and relieve symptoms.

Surgery isn't usually used to treat this type of lung cancer. This is because the cancer has often already spread to other areas of the body by the time it's diagnosed. However, if the cancer is found very early, surgery may be used. In these cases, chemotherapy or radiotherapy may be given after surgery to help reduce the risk of the cancer returning.

For more information see NHS website (link in External Resources)

More information

In March 2019 the the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published updated guidance on the diagnosis and management of lung cancer. A link is provided in the External Resources section.


NHS Choices - accessed 10/07/17
Cancer UK - accessed 10/07/17
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) website accessed 29/03/19
Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

Disclaimer: This site is designed to offer information for general educational purposes only. The health information furnished on this site and the interactive responses are not intended to be professional advice and are not intended to replace personal consultation with a qualified physician, pharmacist, or other healthcare professional. We cannot provide individual medical advice. You must always seek the advice of a professional for questions related to a disease, disease symptoms, and appropriate therapeutic treatments.