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What is non-small cell lung cancer?

Non-small cell lung cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the lung.

There are several types of non-small cell lung cancer. Each type of non-small cell lung cancer has different kinds of cancer cells. The cancer cells of each type grow and spread in different ways. The types of non-small cell lung cancer are named for the kinds of cells found in the cancer and how the cells look under a microscope:
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: Cancer that begins in squamous cells, which are thin, flat cells that look like fish scales. This is also called epidermoid carcinoma.
  • Large cell carcinoma: Cancer that may begin in several types of large cells.
  • Adenocarcinoma: Cancer that begins in the cells that line the alveoli and make substances such as mucus.
Other less common types of non-small cell lung cancer are: pleomorphic, carcinoid tumor, salivary gland carcinoma and unclassified carcinoma.
Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer. It often grows and spreads less rapidly than small cell lung cancer. There are three types of non-small cell lung cancer -- squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma and large cell carcinoma.

Lung cancer usually begins in one lung. If left untreated, it can spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the chest, including the other lung. Lung cancer can also spread throughout the body to the bones, brain, liver or other organs.
About 85% to 90% of lung cancers are non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). About 10% to 15% are small cell lung cancer (SCLC), named for the size of the cancer cells when seen under a microscope.
There are 3 main subtypes of NSCLC.
  • Squamous cell (epidermoid) carcinoma
  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Large cell (undifferentiated) carcinoma
The cells in these subtypes differ in size, shape, and chemical make-up when looked at under a microscope. But they are grouped together because the approach to treatment and prognosis (outlook) are very similar.

Primary cancers of the lung are generally divided into two groups: non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer.  The term “primary” means that the cancer originated from the cells in the lung rather than spreading to the lung from another organ. Non-small cell lung cancer is the more common type, making up about 85% of all primary lung cancers.  Non-small cell lung cancer tends to grow and spread more slowly than small cell lung cancer, and it is treated with surgery if detected at an early stage. Small cell lung cancer tends to spread more rapidly, and it is usually treated with chemotherapy rather than surgery. 

Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer, in which malignant tumors start growing in your lungs. As many as 87 percent of lung cancers are non-small cell carcinomas. Adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and large cell carcinoma are all types of non-small cell lung cancer.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.