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Lung Cancer

The two main types of lung cancer are:

  • small cell lung cancer (SCLC)
  • non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

About 15% of lung cancers (less than 1 in 5) are small cell; the rest are non-small cell

Small Cell lung cancer

Small cell lung cancer is called this because when the cancer cells are looked at under a microscope they are very small. It is sometimes referred to as oat cell cancer.

Small cell lung cancer is usually caused by smoking, and it is rare for someone who has never smoked to develop this type of lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer is often fast-growing and can spread quickly.

Non-small cell lung cancer

There are three main types of non-small cell lung cancer. Sometimes it is not possible to tell which type someone has. This is because when the cells are looked at under a microscope, they are not developed enough or the biopsy doesn't contain enough cells to diagnose the different types of NSCLC. 

  • Squamous cell carcinoma- This develops in the cells that line the airways. This type of lung cancer is often caused by smoking.
  • Adenocarcinoma - This is the most common subtype. This develops from the cells that produce mucus in the lining of the airways. This type of cancer is becoming more common.
  • Large cell carcinoma -This gets its name from the large, rounded cells that are seen when they are examined under a microscope. It is  sometimes known as undifferentiated carcinoma


This is a cancer of the membrane that covers the surface of the lungs and lines the inside of the chest. It often occurs in people who have been exposed to asbestos.


Carcinoids are rare tumours which tend to be slow growing. They may not cause any symptoms for several years. Most of these tumours occur in people over the age of 60.Carcinoid tumours are also sometimes just called carcinoid. They are one type of tumour of the neuroendocrine system. 

Important links: Macmillan, Roy CastleMESO UK, BBAFS.

Information about treatments

All patients with lung cancer can be helped and some can be cured. The treatment recommended to you will depend on the type of lung cancer you have and whether it is confined to the lung or has spread elsewhere in the body.

Whatever treatment is discussed with you it is important that you, your family or friends have all the information you require and the opportunity to ask questions about it.

Please ask questions about other treatments if you want to. Your consultant and nurse will be happy to discuss them with you.

The three main treatments for lung cancer are:

  • Surgery- Some tumours are best treated by an operation to remove them. Surgery is obviously a major undertaking and your doctor will not advise this unless they feel that it is likely to result in you being cured of your lung cancer. Unfortunately some patients will not be fit enough for surgery or it may not be possible to remove all of the cancer with an operation.

If surgery is possible it may be necessary to remove just part of the lung or a whole lung. Even after removal of a whole lung patients can have a good quality of life and are still able to do many of the activities that they did before the surgery. However, you should expect to get breathless more easily.

Please see here for more information on lung cancer care.

  • Radiotherapy- This is a type of x-ray treatment and is the most commonly used treatment for lung cancer. The treatment is targeted at where the cancer is. The number of treatments depends on your individual case and your oncologist (cancer specialist) will discuss this with you.

You should be offered the opportunity to meet the lung specialist radiographer, who offers information and support to patients having radiotherapy to their chest. They can also co-ordinate courses of intensive radiotherapy.

  • Chemotherapy- This is drug treatment and is given in injection or tablet form. There are many different types and combinations of chemotherapy. Your oncologist will advise you which is best for you. Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment. This means it travels all-round the body and if the cancer cells are sensitive to it, it kills them wherever they are.

After treatment you will be seen regularly by the team who gave it, lung oncologist. They will assess how effective it has been and ensure any side effects have resolved. You will be supported by your GP and other members of the community team. You can also contact the lung cancer nurse specialist at any time. We will not routinely call you but please call if you have questions or concerns.

We may sometimes decide to observe you and treat you when you have symptoms. This will be discussed with you at your appointments with the team. 

Palliative care

You may be referred to palliative care in the hospital or in the community. Many patients have symptoms which can be difficult to manage and advice from specialists who can help with symptom control can be of benefit.