How Aggressive Is Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer?

Non-small cell lung cancer aggressive levels
NSCLC is slow-growing and less aggressive than SCLC, which means the survival rate and lifespan are better compared to other types of lung cancer.

Lung cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer with many deaths that surpass the three most common cancers combined (colon, breast and pancreatic).

There are two main types of lung cancer based on the type of cells found in the lung tumor: 

  • Small-cell lung carcinoma (SCLC)
  • Non-small cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC)

NSCLC is the most common type of lung cancer, accounting for 85 percent of all cases. It is often slow-growing and less aggressive as compared to SCLC.

Though over half of patients with lung cancer die within one year of diagnosis and the five-year survival rate is about 18 percent, the survival rates in the case of NSCLC are better compared to other types.

Five-year relative survival rates for non-small cell lung cancer

The lifespan of a patient with lung cancer depends on the stage of the tumor at the time of diagnosis. It is generally predicted from five-year survival rates that are analyzed in a large study.

In this study, the lifespan of a large population after the diagnosis of cancer is observed for a specific timeframe and is generally presented as a five-year survival rate (what percentage of people lived for at least five years after the diagnosis of cancer).

Table. The survival rate of people diagnosed with NSCLC between 2010 and 2016
Stage of lung cancer Five-year relative survival rate (in percent)
Localized 63
Regional (spread outside lung to nearby areas) 35
Distant (spread to distant body parts) 7
All stages combined 25

According to the American Cancer Society (ASC), the overall five-year survival rate for NSCLC is 25 percent, which means 25 out of 100 people with NSCLC can survive for at least five years after their diagnosis. Patients who have reached an advanced stage (distant stage) have only a seven percent chance of survival.

Each year, tens of thousands of people diagnosed with NSCLC move successfully into remission. While the survival rate of lung cancer may seem bleak, some patients with advanced lung cancer can still live many years after their diagnosis. There have even been cases where patients who were told that their lung cancer was incurable lived longer than those who were told that their lung cancer was curable.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that survival rates for cancer are only an estimate of how long patients can live beyond a certain number of years (usually at least five years) after the diagnosis. However, these may vary depending on the patient’s age, overall health and response to treatments.

Also, survival rates are calculated at a particular point in time. Therefore, it may be possible that advances in treatments might improve survival rates over time. Hence, patients should discuss all these factors with their doctor to determine their life expectancy.

How is non-small cell lung cancer treated?

The treatment for non-small cell lung cancer may include:


Patients with NSCLC (except in the advanced stage) typically require surgery in which surgeons may remove only a lobe or section of the lung containing the tumor.

Surgery is planned only if the surgeon has confirmed that the tumor can be removed and the patient can tolerate it. This is confirmed by looking at the imaging tests (such as magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] or computed tomography [CT] scan) and biopsy reports. A biopsy involves surgical removal of a small piece of the tumor to identify cancerous cells and the type of lung cancer.


Doctors may resort to adjuvant therapy after patients have undergone surgery. Adjuvant therapy may benefit the patient by reducing the odds of lung cancer coming back after surgery.

Adjuvant therapy may include one or more of the following:

  • Radiation: This involves focusing high beam energy on the tumor to destroy the cancer cells.
  • Chemotherapy: This involves oral pills or injections of highly potent anticancer drugs to shrink the tumor.
  • Targeted therapy: This therapy uses medications that target the processes responsible for cancer.

Most patients usually receive chemotherapy after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells.


Approximately 40 percent of newly diagnosed lung cancer patients are at an advanced stage. Treatment for these patients aims to improve survival and reduce disease-related complications. 

The recommended chemotherapy medications include:

  • Cisplatin
  • Paclitaxel
  • Gemcitabine
  • Docetaxel
  • Vinorelbine
  • Irinotecan
  • Pemetrexed

To date, significant advances have reduced the occupational health hazards associated with lung cancer, especially indoor pollutants and smoke exposure.

Additionally, noticeable contributions of therapies, such as targeted therapy and novel therapy (immunotherapy), have improved the management of lung cancer. For example, immunotherapy, also called biological therapy, involves using the patient’s immune system to kill the cancer cells.


Lung cancer is a disease in which lung cells grow abnormally in an uncontrolled way. See Answer
American Society of Clinical Oncology. Lung Cancer - Non-Small Cell: Statistics.

Zappa C, Mousa SA. Non-small cell lung cancer: current treatment and future advances. Transl Lung Cancer Res. 2016;5(3):288-300.