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Lung cancer

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by Dan J. Raz, MD, MAS, Thoracic Surgeon, City of Hope | Duarte

This page was updated on June 2, 2023.

The lungs are two large organs that lie above the diaphragm and under the rib cage. When you breathe in, your lungs absorb oxygen and deliver it to the bloodstream, where it’s pumped throughout the body. When you exhale, the lungs remove carbon dioxide, a waste gas, from the bloodstream. Lung cancer interferes with this vital process and can make breathing more difficult.

The disease is the second most common non-skin cancer among men and women in the United States, after prostate cancer in men and breast cancer in women. A thorough and accurate cancer diagnosis is the first step in developing a lung cancer treatment plan.

No lung cancer patient is the same. Get personalized treatment.

At City of Hope, we understand the uncertainty that comes with a lung cancer diagnosis. Our oncologists and supportive care clinicians are committed to helping you understand the complexities of the disease and the array of treatment options available to you, so you can make informed decisions about your care.

Our cancer care experts offer a level of expertise that comes from working regularly with cancer patients—every stage, every day. The doctors tap that training and experience in designing a comprehensive care plan specific to your cancer, your stage and your individual needs. At City of Hope, we offer a wide range of lung cancer diagnostic tools and treatments, including immunotherapy, advanced genomic testing and other new options that may be available through clinical trials.

This overview will cover the basic facts about lung cancer, including:

If you believe you may be experiencing symptoms of lung cancer and want to schedule an appointment for diagnostic testing, or if you’re interested in a second opinion for lung cancer at City of Hope, call us or chat online with a member of our team.

Causes and risk factors for lung cancer


Cecil L.

Lung Cancer

"Just walking into the center, I got such a positive first impression. I got a sense of hope as soon as I walked through the doors. I felt nervous excitement radiate through me. And later on, when I talked to other patients, they experienced the same feeling and sensation. Everybody's friendly, they greet you warmly, and you just feel secure. I felt like I was in the right place for me. I just had this feeling that good things were going to happen.


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Signs and symptoms of lung cancer

Most people with lung cancer don’t have early signs or symptoms. However, when symptoms develop, they are most likely to include:

  • A cough that persists, worsens or produces blood
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

Lung cancer patients may experience chest pain that worsens with deep breathing or coughing, and have frequent lung infections such as bronchitis or pneumonia.

When lung cancer spreads to other areas of the body, a process referred to as metastasis, symptoms may include bone pain, headache, weakness, numbness, jaundice or enlarged lymph nodes.

How lung cancer is diagnosed

Lung cancer stages

Before starting treatment, your care team needs to identify the stage of your lung cancer. Staging tells your care team the extent of your cancer and helps decide the appropriate treatment.

The two main types of lung cancer are non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). Knowing the type is important for staging and treatment.

  • NSCLC, the most common type, comprises 80 to 85 percent of all lung cancers. Most of these cancers stem from gland tissues in the lungs and are called adenocarcinomas of the lung. They may occur in smokers or nonsmokers and are more common in women. The other main subtypes of NSCLC are squamous cell carcinoma and large cell carcinoma.
  • SCLC makes up 10 to 15 percent of lung cancers and is almost always caused by smoking. These cancers tend to grow and spread quickly, so they’re staged differently. Treatment may include chemotherapy or radiation.

To stage cancer, doctors use what’s called the TNM system. TNM stands for Tumor Node Metastasis, which are important factors in determining the severity of the cancer.

Depending on the TNM findings, lung cancer may be diagnosed from stage 0 to stage 4. The higher the stage, the more advanced the cancer.

For SCLC, doctors sometimes use a simplified system with just two stages. These two stages are limited and extensive.

  • Limited-stage SCLC is cancer in the lung, where it started, and may have spread to lymph nodes between the lungs or above the collarbone.
  • Extensive-stage SCLC is cancer that has spread anywhere beyond the limited stage.

Learn more about stages of lung cancer

Treatment for NSCLC and SCLC

Preparing for lung cancer treatment

No one treatment is one-size-fits-all. You need to work with your care team to find the right option for you.

Below are tips to help you prepare for your treatment conversation:

  • Ask about the goal of treatment. Is it to kill the cancer, control the disease or make you more comfortable?
  • Ask whether your cancer has been tested for proteins or mutations that may expand your treatment options.
  • Ask about resources that provide specific information on your treatment, and learn as much as you can, including how the treatment works, how long it lasts and its possible side effects.
  • Find out what you can do to improve results before treatment starts. For example, your doctor may recommend you visit a dentist before undergoing chemotherapy.
  • Establish a support system. Ask how much help you may need at home. Ask about available support groups where you may share experiences with other lung cancer survivors.

Learn more about the questions to ask about lung cancer treatment

Diagnostic and treatment options at our City of Hope Lung Cancer Centers

If you believe you may be experiencing symptoms of lung cancer and want to schedule an appointment for diagnostic testing, or if you’re interested in a second opinion for lung cancer at City of Hope, call us or chat online with a member of our team.