Types of Lung Cancer: Small Cell vs. Non Small Cell Differences

Types of Lung Cancer

There are several types of lung cancer and they are divided into two categories. The most common type is non small cell lung cancers and they make up the large majority of cases, by as much as 80%. The second type is small cell lung cancer, which is much less common but nonetheless dangerous type. The aforementioned types of lung cancer vary in terms of progression, prognosis and in some cases, symptoms.

Non small cell lung cancer is comprised of three subtypes of cancer affecting the lungs. Squamous cell carcinoma refers to that which develops in the tubes of the bronchi. Adenocarcinoma is another subtype that is the most common in both women and men. Large cell carcinomas refer to all other non small cell lung cancer that is not adenocarcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma. Lung cancer staging is also related to non small cell lung cancer, and it is staged in four levels, stages one through four. Stage one refers to no spreading to lymph nodes or other parts of the body whatsoever, where the cancer is only confined to the lungs. Stage two refers to cancer that is in the lungs and has presented in the lymph nodes that are in close proximity. Stage three refers to further lung and lymph node spreading and is also called advanced disease. And, stage four refers to cancer that is affecting both lungs, local lymph nodes, lung surrounding fluid and potentially other organs. Lung cancer treatment for non small cell lung cancer depends on many factors, primarily of course which stage the disease is at and the extent of its spread.

Conversely, small cell lung cancer (SMLC) is much less common. It is estimated that between 15% and 20% of all lung cancers are of this type, with it almost exclusively being linked to cigarette smoking. Unlike non small cell types of lung cancer, SMLC is not staged progressively, with it only being identified as being either contained or extensive. As such, “limited stage” small cell lung cancer refers to that which only affects the lungs and surrounding lymph nodes. And, “extended stage” means that the cancer has traveled to other parts of the chest or body. One of the most unfortunate lung cancer facts surrounding this less common type is the rate at which it spreads which is much more rapidly than its more common counterpart. However, it is thought to respond better to chemotherapy than non small cell lung cancer.

Lung cancer symptoms are similar between the two types and depend more on location than type. In most cases, symptoms don’t appear right away, which can lead to a worsening of the spread of the disease. When cancers are found in the chest only, coughing and hoarseness can be present along with color and volume changes to the sputum. Shortness of breath and voice changes are also common lung cancer symptoms. Additionally, a tendency to more frequently develop respiratory ailments may occur with lung cancer.

Coughing or spitting up blood are also common symptoms of different types of lung cancer. This may mean simply that mucus is stained or tinged with blood, or it may refer to actual coughing up blood. Regardless, these symptoms are not normal, and often one of the most common reasons that people may seek medical attention.

Unlike symptoms, lung cancer prognosis is one area where there are differences between the different types of lung cancers that are evident. For instance, small cell lung cancer has a poor prognosis with a lower survival rate in persons that go untreated due to its aggressive growth patterns. However, this phenomenon is tougher to measure when the cancer is found and treated since it has such well documented successful response to chemotherapy. However, the long term prognosis even when prolonged with chemotherapy is still poor. Conversely, non small cell lung cancer has better survival rates, but these are intimately tied to the stage the cancer is at when found. Stage one for instance, which can often lead to complete surgical tumor removal, can have a very good success and treatment rate. Whereas in later advanced stages of disease, the overall lung cancer prognosis is still relatively poor.

Lung cancer is a terrible and dangerous condition that can be difficult to find and to treat. Unfortunately, it is also a very common type of cancer. Eliminating risk factors like cigarette smoking and other environmental hazards that may increase the risk of lung cancer can greatly improve the odds that the condition may never develop.