Key Points about Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

  • Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer.
  • Doctors use biopsy, imaging tests and physical exam to diagnose non-small cell lung cancer.
  • Treatment for non-small cell lung cancer may include surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and/or radiation therapy.


Lung cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the lung. Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer. Three of the most common types of non-small cell lung cancer are:

  • Adenocarcinoma – this type of cancer begins in the alveoli (tiny air sacs) of the lung.
  • Large cell carcinoma – this type begins in one of several types of large cells of the lung.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma – also called epidermoid carcinoma, this type begins in the thin, flat cells that line the lungs.

Non-small cell lung cancer causes

This condition is caused by mutations (changes) to the DNA of the cells of the lung.

Non-small cell lung cancer risk factors

The following factors may increase your risk for developing non-small cell lung cancer:

  • Being a smoker
  • Being exposed to radon, asbestos or other harmful workplace substances
  • Being exposed to secondhand smoke
  • Having a personal or family history of lung cancer
  • Having high levels of arsenic in your drinking water
  • Having undergone radiation therapy to the lungs
  • Living in an area with high levels of air pollution
  • Taking certain supplements, including beta carotene

Non-small cell lung cancer symptoms

The two main signs of non-small cell lung cancer are shortness of breath and a cough that won’t go away. Other signs and symptoms of non-small cell lung cancer can include:

  • Bloody cough
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Decreased appetite
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Feeling very tired
  • Hoarseness
  • Swelling in your face or the veins of your neck
  • Wheezing
  • Unintentional weight loss

Non-small cell lung cancer diagnosis

Your oncologist may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose this condition:

  • Physical exam – your doctor will perform a complete physical exam – including asking questions about your health history, your symptoms and related risk factors.
  • Biopsy – in this test, your doctor removes a biopsy (small tissue sample) from the lung. This sample is sent to the laboratory, where a specialist closely checks the biopsy for abnormalities.
  • Blood tests – your doctor will send a sample of your blood to the laboratory for close analysis. The lab technician checks your blood for signs of lung cancer.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan – this type of imaging test provides a 3D image of the inside of the body that your doctor can use to determine if there is any cancer present.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – this type of imaging test uses high-powered magnets to create detailed images of the inside of your body. Your doctor can closely examine these images to look for any areas that could indicate cancer.
  • Sputum cytology – your doctor will send a sample of your sputum (spit) to the laboratory for close analysis. The lab technician will check the sputum for cancerous cells under a microscope.

Non-small cell lung cancer treatment

Depending on your personal health history, the extent of the non-small cell lung cancer and other factors, your oncologist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:

  • Surgery – in some cases, your doctor may recommend a surgical procedure to remove the cancerous area. Your surgeon will work to preserve as much surrounding healthy tissue as possible. There are multiple types of surgery available; your doctor will advise which type may be right for your situation.
  • Chemotherapy – you may need to undergo chemotherapy to destroy cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically. During this treatment, medication is used to destroy cancerous cells. Chemotherapy can be taken via an oral (by mouth) pill or intravenously (through a vein).
  • Radiation therapy – this treatment uses high-powered energy beams to destroy cancerous cells. You may need to undergo this treatment to destroy cancerous cells that could not be removed surgically.
  • Targeted therapy – this treatment focuses on the molecular changes that make cancer cells grow and spread. These therapies are less likely than chemotherapy to harm healthy cells and may have fewer side effects. 

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment.

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