Types of Lung Cancer

This is an icon of non-small cell lung cancer.

When tumors develop in the lungs, this is a type of lung cancer. Doctors group lung cancer into two main types, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). These different lung cancer types can then be broken down into lower subtypes based on their location in the body and metastasis (spread) in the lungs and surrounding organs. Learning the differences among these different diseases can help protect your health.

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC)

NSCLC consists of three main subtypes. These are called adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and large cell carcinoma. A carcinoma is a type of cancer that begins in the skin or tissues lining or covering internal organs. Rarer subtypes of NSCLC include adenosquamous and sarcomatoid carcinoma.

  • Adenocarcinoma – Also known as ADC, adenocarcinoma involves tumors developing in cells that secrete mucus-like substances. More specifically, the tumors begin in the glands that line the inside of your lungs. While adenocarcinoma is the most common variant of lung cancer to be found in non-smokers, it occurs mainly in current or former smokers.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma – Tumors begin in squamous or flat cells, and line the inside of the lung airways. Squamous cell carcinoma is commonly linked to a history of smoking, as tumors are usually found in the central part of the lungs near a primary airway.
  • Large cell carcinoma – This type of lung cancer is also undifferentiated, meaning that it can be located anywhere in the lung. Also, it develops more quickly than the other subtypes, making it more challenging to treat. Large cell neuroendocrine carcinoma is a subtype of large cell carcinoma that also develops quickly but is more similar to small cell lung cancer.
  • Adenosquamous carcinoma – This form of lung cancer contains at least 20% of components from lung adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Additionally, it is extremely rare and tough to diagnose preoperatively.
  • Sarcomatoid carcinoma – A mixture of carcinoma (skin or tissue cancer) and sarcoma (a cancer of the bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels, or other connecting or supporting tissues.)

Get the Help You Need


Small Cell Lung Cancer (SCLC)

There are two subtypes of SCLC called oat (small) cell carcinoma and combined small cell carcinoma. They differ in how they grow, metastasize, and how they appear when observed through a microscope.

The development of SCLC is grouped into two stages: limited and extensive. During the limited phase, tumors have only developed in one lung and possibly the lymph nodes on one side of the chest. The extensive stage occurs when tumors metastasize from one lung to another, as well as the lymph nodes and possibly even other organs.

While limited-stage SCLC patients may have more treatment options to cure the disease, treatments for extensive-stage SCLC patients are more focused on relieving symptoms or slowing the disease down, otherwise known as palliative treatments.

Other Types of Lung Cancer Tumors

Outside of NSCLC and SCLC, there is a tiny percentage of other lung tumors that develop in patients. In general, they are rare and typically mentioned case-by-case as they occur. Different types of tumors that develop in the lungs include:

  • Lung carcinoid tumors – A type of cancerous tumor made up of neuroendocrine cells. These types of cells can produce hormone-like substances as well as secrete neurotransmitters. Only about three out of 10 carcinoid tumors are found in the lungs.
  • Cystic carcinomas – Normally cancer that begins in the glandular tissues of the head and neck, cystic carcinoma is uncommon and can sometimes occur in other parts of the body.
  • Lymphomas – When tumors develop in the infection-fighting cells of the immune system, otherwise known as lymphocytes, lymphomas form. This includes cells in the lymph nodes, spleen, thymus, bone marrow, and others.
  • Sarcomas – Another general term for a broad group of cancers that begin in the bones and soft tissues, sarcomas can occur in multiple locations in the body. There are over 70 different types of sarcomas.
  • Hamartomas – Noncancerous tumors are made of an irregular mixture of healthy tissues and cells. Hamartomas can grow on any external part of the body, as well as internally in places such as the lungs.
  • Mesothelioma – A type of rare cancer, mesothelioma tumors form in the lining of the lungs (pleura), the lining of the abdomen (peritoneum), or the lining of the heart (pericardium). Pleural mesothelioma is not lung cancer despite its location. However, less experienced medical professionals can mistake it for lung cancer.

Lung Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Cancer can develop when healthy cells in the body lose control and begin growing excessively. The cause for this may be hereditary, or a person can develop tumors due to outside forces. Risk factors for lung cancer include environments that a person may encounter that can raise the chances of their exposure to carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents.

If a person is exposed to a carcinogenic substance on a job site, prolonged exposure could increase that person’s chances of developing lung cancer. In this case, their occupation would be considered a risk factor, while the carcinogenic substance is the potential cause. Asbestos, for example, is a harmful carcinogen that has been known to cause lung cancer and mesothelioma when a person is exposed to its toxic fibers for an extended period.

This is an icon of a lung cancer patient experiences treatment symptoms.

Possible Symptoms

The symptoms of lung cancer can sometimes be mistaken for symptoms from other diseases, such as a seasonal cold or flu. The severity of symptoms tends to depend on the subtype or stage of cancer. Symptoms can be less noticeable in stages I or II or more painful in stages III and IV. Symptoms tend to be similar for SCLC and NSCLC.

Early-Stage Symptoms

  • Excessive pain in the chest, back, or shoulders that gets worse when coughing, laughing, or breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Hoarseness
  • Lack of appetite
  • Worsening existing cough, new chronic cough, and any coughing that brings up blood
  • Recurring lung infections (i.e. bronchitis)
  • Shortness of breath during everyday physical activities
  • Wheezing
  • Weight loss

Advanced-Stage Symptoms

  • Chronic headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Extreme bone pain
  • Numbness in limbs
  • Inflammation in neck or collarbone area
  • Jaundice
  • Swelling of the face, arms, or neck

Consult with a doctor right away if you experience any of these symptoms.

This is an icon of a physician.

Screening and Diagnosis

A screening is a type of exam a doctor may use to detect lung cancer or other illness. Whether it be one of the several different types of lung cancer or something else, the earlier it’s detected, the easier it is to fight and improve the prognosis.

Your doctor can examine you, take screenings and tests, and further give their official medical analysis on your condition. This is also known as a diagnosis. If you’re unsure of the severity of your symptoms, whether you’re a high-risk for the disease, or have any concerns at all, schedule a screening with a medical professional as soon as you can.

What’s Next?

The reason behind a patient developing lung cancer is very important. If the patient didn’t vape or smoke cigarettes, the cause for illness could’ve been prolonged exposure to a different toxic substance. If this is true, a doctor can help the patient map out the details behind how they came into contact with the pollutants. If exposure was the fault of a specific individual or party, they can be held responsible, and the patient could be entitled to financial compensation.

Diagnosed with a type of lung cancer? Consider the cause and possible legal options. Financial compensation could greatly help offset treatment and post-treatment costs of living.