Assessing the progression of lung cancer

Lung cancer is a disease that develops in lung tissues, like the airway lining. There are two common types: non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC).

When doctors talk about lung cancer stages, they are classifying its progression based on a few variables:

  • What is the size of the tumor?
  • Has it spread to nearby lymph nodes?
  • Has it spread to distant organs?

The lung cancer stage defines the extent of the disease, which also guides the treatment and prognosis. Determining the stage of your cancer is the first step in developing a plan of treatment.

Non-small cell lung cancer stages

The most common form of lung cancer is non-small cell lung cancer, or NSCLC. With this type of cancer, cells in the inner lung change and grow out of control, eventually forming a tumor. When assessing how advanced the lung cancer is, providers use these stages:
  • Stage 1—The cancer has not spread outside the lung. During stage 1 lung cancer, common symptoms include shortness of breath, a persistent cough, and coughing up blood or blood-stained phlegm.
  • Stage 2—The cancer has grown in size and/or spread to nearby lymph nodes. Common symptoms of this lung cancer stage include a cough, bronchitis or pneumonia that doesn’t go away, weight loss, coughing up blood, chest pain, hoarse voice, shortness of breath, wheezing or tiredness.
  • Stage 3—The cancer has grown or spread to lymph nodes, and it may not be possible to remove it with surgery. The cancer has grown or spread to lymph nodes, and it may not be possible to remove it with surgery.
  • Stage 4—The cancer has spread throughout the lungs or to distant parts of the body and may not be removed with surgery. During this stage of lung cancer, common symptoms include coughing up blood, blood in spit, chest pain that’s aggravated by deep breaths, poor appetite and unintentional weight loss, shortness of breath, fatigue, weakness, or frequent infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia.

Small cell lung cancer stages

Small cell lung cancer develops when nerve or hormone-producing cells start to grow uncontrollably. When diagnosing, SCLC is classified into two stages:

  • Limited stage—The lung cancer is localized to only one area of the chest (like a single lung or in lymph nodes in the same area of the chest).
  • Extensive stage—The cancer has spread throughout the lung and may have metastasized to the other lung, lymph nodes or surrounding tissues.

People with small cell lung cancer may experience a range of symptoms, from none to any of the following: fatigue, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss, coughing up phlegm or blood, or swelling of the neck or face.

Innovating to get you better

You’re not on this journey alone. With specialized treatment centers dedicated to lung care, the team at Baylor Scott & White Health is here to help.

Our internationally recognized team has experience helping patients like you and your loved ones through their cancer journey. If you have questions about diagnosis or treatment, don’t hesitate to ask your care team.

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