What are small cell and non-small cell lung cancers?

Non-small cell lung cancer makes up most of the diagnoses

lung cancerWhile lung cancer is less common than cancers of the breast or prostate, it is responsible for nearly a third of all cancer deaths in the United States – 27% according to the American Cancer Society. The stigma of lung cancer being a “smoker’s disease” still persists despite the fact that 20% of deaths from lung cancer occur in those who never smoked. The last few years have been very exciting for lung cancer research. New immune and targeted therapies are available to treat this very deadly cancer.

Surprisingly, lung cancer is not one disease. It is classified into three types based upon the type and location of cell involved: small cell, non-small cell and lung carcinoid tumor.

Non-small cell lung cancer

The more common type is non-small cell which comprises almost 90% of all lung cancers and is further broken down into these three subgroups:

  • Adenocarcinoma: this cancer involves the non-small cells in the lung’s air sacs where they make mucus to help ease the work of breathing.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: this cancer involves the non-small cells are thin and flat and are often found in the center of the chest near the two tubes that move air in and out of the lungs.
  • Large cell carcinoma: these non-small cells can be in any part of the lung. This type of cancer is the most aggressive of the three non-small cell subtypes.

Small cell lung cancer

Small cell lung cancer is the less common type and only accounts for about 10% of all lung cancers. It affects a type of cell called the oat cell or small cell. It often begins near the center of the chest near the two tubes that move air in and out of the lungs. This type is generally the most aggressive of all lung cancers. It often spreads to the brain and other organs very quickly.

Lung carcinoid tumor

This lung cancer makes up less than 5% of lung cancers. It involves neuroendocrine cells and grows slowly and rarely spreads. The American Cancer Society has a complete discussion of this type of lung cancer.

Treating lung cancer

These types of lung cancer are treated differently but often require a combination approach using surgery (for early stage disease), chemotherapy, radiation and/or targeted therapies. Targeted therapies are a fairly new class of drugs that are different from chemotherapy drugs. Targeted therapies work on specific genetic changes in proteins and genes such as EGFR and ALK. Some example are Crizotinib (Xalkori ), Nivolumab (Opdivo) and Ramucirumab (Cyramza). Many of these drugs are oral and are therefore taken at home. They still require supervision by a healthcare professional to monitor side effects and effectiveness.

The development of targeted therapies has been an asset in the fight against cancers such as lung which are challenging to control. They also allow both patent and provider more therapy choices.

Take the next step:

  • Learn more about lung cancer from the National Cancer Institute.
  • The American Cancer Society explains the difference between small cell and non-small cell lung cancer here.
  • Look here for information on people who are at high risk for lung cancer, and the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center’s screening clinic for these patients.
  • Still have questions? Call the nurses at the University of Michigan Cancer AnswerLine™. They can help patients or their loved ones find a clinical trial or provide insights into the newest and latest cancer treatments. Feel free to call at 1-800-865-1125 or send an e-mail.

SusanDaron no captionThe Cancer AnswerLine™ nurses are experienced in oncology care, including helping patients and their families who have questions about cancer. These registered oncology nurses are available by calling 800-865-1125 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Your call is always free and confidential.



Cancer-center-informal-vertical-sig-150x150The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan according to U.S. News & World Report. Our multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.