Timeline for Lung Cancer Diagnoses

Known causes of lung cancer include habits like smoking cigarettes and exposure to workplace carcinogens. However, these events do not produce tumors overnight. The development of lung cancers typically takes years to progress from precancerous cells to malignant tumors. Moreover, the timeline for lung cancer – from the onset of symptoms to treatment – is different for each patient. Subsequently, doctors rely on grouping cancers by cell type and location before giving patients a prognosis (i.e., the projected course of the disease).

Keep reading for a lung cancer timeline of what to expect before your diagnosis, during treatment, and what comes after in recovery.

Development of Tumors

While lung cancer is a form of cancer that starts in the lungs, it can, over time, spread throughout the body. Finding tumors early gives patients the greatest odds of being cured of lung cancer – making early screening methods essential to any individual at risk for lung cancer.

Currently, low-dose CT scans are recommended to reveal lung nodules, though some nodules may go undiscovered before becoming a measurable threat. Unfortunately, there are currently no tests that indicate when cancer started or for how long it has been growing. Additionally, lung cancers tend to spread more quickly than cancers that start in other areas of the body.
This is an image representing a statistic about the breakdown of lung cancer cells.
The first step in the lung cancer timeline begins with the alteration of healthy cells into precancerous ones that divide and grow uncontrollably. In most cases, a tumor needs to be one centimeter in size to be visible on x-ray results; a single lung cancer cell must divide at least 30 times to create a nodule one centimeter across. Consequently, several years may pass before lung cancers become noticed via radiology exams, and before they cause common symptoms of lung cancer.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Although non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC) usually begin in different areas of the lungs, their early symptoms are similar. As the primary tumor increases in size and spreads to neighboring tissues and lymph nodes, cancerous masses begin to block airways and make breathing painful. The first signs of lung cancer may include:

  • Blood in mucus
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling weak
  • Hoarse voice
  • Loss of appetite
  • Persistent cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Wheezing

In addition to NSCLC and SCLC, the above symptoms could be the result of other lung cancers (such as mesothelioma). As such, doctors administer a series of diagnostic testing to determine the type of cancer as well as the stage. Radiology exams (including x-rays, PET scans, and MRIs) help determine the location of tumors; results are generally returned to patients the same day or at a follow-up appointment.

Next, a tissue biopsy reveals the type of lung cancer cells – doctors also use this information to stage the patient’s cancer. A lung biopsy can be performed on patients while they are awake, though some people may need to be admitted for one or more nights in a hospital. Also, as biopsies require coordination with a lab, results may take a few days to return. Within a week, a doctor will discuss the tests’ outcomes and, if applicable, inform you of your lung cancer prognosis and treatment options.

Prognosis and Treatment

Following diagnosis, a doctor generally reviews the patient’s lung cancer prognosis (i.e., the likely progression of the disease) as well as his or her cancer therapy options. The timeline for these discussions may include a single appointment or multiple visits with several members of the patient’s cancer care team (such as their oncologist).

Ordinarily, tumors in the lungs at least two centimeters in size are treated within eight weeks of diagnosis. In general, lung cancer metastasizes from one location in one of the lungs into other parts of the breathing pathways after stages I and II. Then, on to nearby lymph nodes, into the bones, liver, and/or other organs, and finally to distant organs (like the brain) in stages III and IV.

Next, depending on the stage of your lung cancer and your overall health, your first treatment may be scheduled as soon as possible, or as soon as scheduling allows. The earlier lung cancer is diagnosed, the more likely tumors can be removed successfully via surgery (including sleeve resection, segmentectomy, and lobectomy), chemotherapy, or radiation. Advanced stage cancers may include other forms of treatment (such as targeted therapy and immunotherapy) in addition to traditional cancer therapy.

Commonly, patients can expect to continue treatment until their cancer is in remission, or the symptoms and traces of lung cancer have been partially or wholly curtailed. Yet, if there is no reasonable expectation of recovery from the often-harsh side effects of treatment, palliative care may become the primary therapy option.

The median survival timeline for the more aggressive SCLC is between 16 and 24 months for limited-stage SCLC and 12 months for extensive-stage SCLC. The 5-year survival rates for NSCLC are:

  • 60 percent for patients with localized tumors
  • 33 percent for patients with regional tumors
  • 6 percent for patients with distant tumors

What’s Next?

If you’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer and have questions about what might have caused it (such as occupational exposure to toxins like asbestos or radon), request a free case evaluation from an experienced attorney.