Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer. It begins when epithelial cells, which form the lining of the lungs, become abnormal and start to grow uncontrollably. These cells can develop into a mass called a tumor. A cancerous tumor is a collection of a large number of cancer cells that have the ability to spread to other parts of the body. This spread of cancer from a primary site in the lungs is called metastasis.
Types of Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer
There are three main types of non-small cell lung cancer:
- Adenocarcinoma begins in cells that line the alveoli, which exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide near the outer walls of the lungs.
- Squamous cell carcinoma begins in cells that line the bronchial tubes in the center of the lungs.
- Large cell carcinoma, also called undifferentiated lung cancer, is the name for about 5% of non-small cell lung cancers that do not belong to either of the first two types.
Differences among these three types of cancer mean that there are differences in the drugs that are most effective for treating them. Different drugs are recommended for adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, although most medicines help with both. Treatments that are used for adenocarcinoma are the most effective in treatment for large cell carcinoma.
Non-small cell lung cancer tumors can also be subcategorized based on specific genetic mutations that can take place in cancer cells. Doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering can identify these mutations during your diagnostic testing and use this information to determine what treatments will be most effective. Learn more about our approach to diagnosis and staging.
Many people with lung cancer have no noticeable symptoms. Often the first sign of the disease is an abnormal spot that appears on a chest x-ray or CT scan for another medical condition. Sometimes, however, people notice one or more of the following symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Loss of appetite
- Coughing up phlegm or mucus
- Coughing up blood
Lung cancer can spread within the lung itself as well as to the lymph nodes in the chest, the bones, brain, liver, and adrenal glands. If it does, you may experience pain or discomfort in other parts of the body.
Although these symptoms are associated with non-small cell lung cancer, they can also develop as a result of other medical conditions not related to cancer. If you experience one or more of these symptoms, talk with your doctor.