The prognosis for different kinds of lung cancer is very different.

When most hear the words "lung cancer", they often think the diagnosis is a death sentence.  Not so fast.  There are two types of lung cancer, non-small cell carcinoma and small cell carcinoma, and the difference in the five year survival rates are dramatically different.

First, the medicine.  Small cell carcinoma is a form of lung cancer that originates in the lung where the physical appearance of the cancer cell is, just like you would think, small.  Small cell carcinoma is much less common than non-small carcinoma and accounts for roughly 10-15% of all cases of lung cancer.  The five year survival rate for non-small cell carcinoma is virtully zero--this means that a diagnosis of small cell lung cancer is, in effect, a death sentence.  You will die from small cell carcinoma most likely within one year of the diagnosis and often within six months of the diagnosis.

Non-small cell carcinoma is a more common form of lung cancer, accounting for roughly 80-85% of all cases of lung cancer.  This form of cancer, just like small cell carcinoma, originates in the lung and spreads from the lung to the mediastinum (space between the lungs) and from there, the cancer can spread into the blood stream.  Non-small carcinoma is generally far more treatable than small cell carcinoma and the five year survival rate can be excellent when the cancer is discovered in its early stages.

The goal of treatment is to diagnose and treat lung cancer before it spreads, or metastasizes, to other organs in the body, such as the brain or liver.  Once lung cancer has metastasized to distant organs, it is highly lethal.

The five year survival rate means the statistical probability that a person will be alive five years after the date of their cancer diagnosis.  To determine the five year survival rate, you need to know the kind of lung cancer, non-small cell or small cell, and the stage of the cancer, stage one, two, three or four.  When you know the kind of lung cancer and the stage of the cancer, then you can determine the five year survival rate.

If you have been diagnosed with stage one or stage two non-small cell carcinoma of the lung, your five year survival rate is considered very good, i.e., better than 50%.  This means that there is a better than 50% chance that you will be alive five years after the diagnosis of lung cancer.  If you are alive five years after your cancer diagnosis, you are considered "cured" in almost all cases.

On the other hand, if you are diagnosed with stage four non-small cell carcinoma of the lung, your five year survival rate is 2%, not so great.  Thus, it is crucial that you ask your oncologist two questions: #1: What type of lung cancer do I have, non-small cell or small cell? and #2: What is the stage of my cancer at the time of diagnosis?  Once you have this information, the rest is easy.  You can then ask your oncologist, "What is the five year rate of surival for me?"

It is never surprising to me how few patients have accurate or complete information about their kind of cancer and their five year survival rate.  Perhaps oncologists think it is better to keep patients in the dark about their prognosis.  Guess again! Patients should be told everything about their condition, unless they don't want to know.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with lung cancer, make sure you get answers to the questions posed in this article.  You will then have a better idea of what you can expect for your future.