Lung Cancer Staging – When Is It Not Too Late?

Lung Cancer Staging

Lung cancer refers to the often rapid, abnormal growth of cells within one or both lungs, and is measured in severity in stages. There are two types of lung cancer. Non small cell consists of conditions like adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and large cell carcinoma, and is the most common. Small cell lung cancer is much less widespread, and accounts for just between 15 and 20 percent of all lung cancers occurring in The United States.

Lung cancer staging varies between these two types of lung cancer because of the differences in the disease. As such, outcomes vary based not only on stage of cancer progression, but also the type of cancer.

Lung cancer staging however in both cases is related to spread of the disease. Once abnormal cells begin to multiply, they can form a mass, which referred to as a tumor (in the case of cancer, this tumor is called ‘malignant’). The tumor can however release or shed cancer cells, and these cells can be transported throughout the body either in the blood or in the tissue surrounding fluid known as lymph. This fluid makes its way to the lymph nodes, where the cells can be spread further. The amount of spreading that has occurred in conjunction with both the size and location of the main tumor are what determines lung cancer staging and ultimately treatment and prognosis.

Lung cancer prognosis is very intimately related to staging. Non small cell lung cancer is grouped into four stages, with stage one referring to a contained tumor only in the lungs with no spreading, and stage two referring to cancer in which a main lung tumor has spread just to local and nearby lymph nodes. These two early stages are the easiest to treat and stage one lung cancer has a 75% 5-year survival rate, thanks to the fact that lung cancer treatment in this stage often requires little more than an all removing surgery. However, the unfortunate truth is that many lung cancers are not found until advanced disease states, in stages three and four, where cancer cells have spread to further lymph nodes and even to other organs within the body. However, the lung cancer prognosis between these two later stages varies greatly, even though they are considered states of advanced disease. Lung cancer staging is thus still significantly important in these later stages of disease, because the 5 year survival rate for persons diagnosed at stage three with type IIIA (10-30%) versus stage four (less than 5%) is dramatically different. Small cell lung cancer, which is known to be much less common but also much more rapidly spreading, is staged in just two degrees of severity, with limited and extensive being the only class of separation for the disease. A nearly 40% survival rate for those with limited disease and less than 5% for extensive (or spread) disease, shows how important lung cancer staging is in relation to outcome.

Lung cancer facts in terms of survival are often misleading and scary, with the overall mortality rate for lung cancer being rather high, and a five year survival rate generally of just fifteen percent. This number can be considered very skewed however, because early stage lung cancers are abundantly treatable with successes in surgery, radiation and chemotherapy leaving many sufferers cancer free years following the initial diagnosis. However, since many lung cancers are not found until later stages, the disease’s mortality rate is very high.

In terms of when it is or is not too late for a successful lung cancer outcome, there is no magic number of days past tumor development that treatment is nullified. However, on the flip side, there is a much smaller chance of success in treating advanced stage disease than early stage disease. Once non small cell lung cancer reaches the third stage, the 5 year survival rate is reduced by half or more, a phenomenon which occurs again in the fourth stage. Thus, treating non small cell lung cancers in the first and second stages, and small cell lung cancer in the limited stage, is ideal and will always yield more positive outcomes.

Of course, lung cancer staging relies on getting a diagnosis as soon as possible. Because lung cancer symptoms are not always evident in the first and second stages, this can be much more difficult. Many of the early symptoms of lung cancer are easily dismissed as being related to other illnesses like bronchitis. Coughing, chest pain, shortness of breath, changes to or hoarseness of voice, and a pattern of respiratory illness are the most common lung cancer symptoms. More serious symptoms like coughing up blood regularly are less likely to appear in early stages, which can make an early diagnosis more challenging.

Of course, instead of relying on lung cancer staging to determine the chance of living after the disease, it is by far and away easier to prevent and avoid it all together. While there are some less common causes of lung cancer like exposure to chemicals and environmental toxins, the very large majority of cases are simply caused by cigarette smoking. Of course, non smokers do get lung cancer, but the lopsided scale of those that do and do not smoke in terms of developing the disease point to how important abstinence from smoking truly are, with upwards of 90% of cases being attributed to cigarette use.

Lung cancer is an incredibly serious and dangerous disease that often leads to death. It is one of few cancers that the major cause or contributing factor to has been identified. Quitting smoking now greatly reduces the chance of not only never developing cancer in the first place, but being physically healthy enough to actually see the symptoms of the disease if it already does exist to make finding it early much more of a possibility.