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Types of lung cancer

Men and women discussing lung cancer

This page tells you about types of lung cancer. There are important differences between lung cancer that started in the lungs and cancer that spreads into the lung from another part of the body. There is information on this page about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Cancer that started in the lungs (primary lung cancer)

There are several different types of primary lung cancer. These are divided into two main types called small cell lung cancer and non small cell lung cancer.

Small cell lung cancer accounts for about 12 out of every 100 lung cancers (12%). It is so called because the cancer cells are small.

Non small cell lung cancers fall into 3 common types and make up about 87 out of 100 lung cancers (87%). These types are grouped together because they behave in a similar way. They respond to treatment differently to small cell lung cancer. The three types are squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, and large cell carcinoma.

Sometimes it’s not possible to tell which of these types you have.

Cancer that has spread into the lungs (secondary lung cancer)

Secondary cancer is cancer that has spread from somewhere else in the body. The choice of cancer treatment depends on where the cancer started. To get the right information you need to look at the section of this website which relates to where your cancer started. For example, if you had breast cancer which has spread to the lungs, then you need to look at the section about breast cancer.

Mesothelioma

This is a rare type of cancer that affects the covering of the lung (the pleura). It is often caused by exposure to asbestos. It is very different to lung cancer and has different treatment. We have a separate section about mesothelioma.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the About lung cancer section.

 

 

Cancer that started in the lung

If your cancer started in the lung, it is a primary lung cancer. There are several different types and these are divided into two main groups: small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

 

Small cell lung cancer

About 12 out of every 100 lung cancers diagnosed are this type (12%). Small cell lung cancer is called this because under the microscope the cancer cells look small and are mostly filled with the nucleus (the control centre of cells). It is also called oat cell cancer. 

This type of cancer is usually caused by smoking. It is very rare for someone who has never smoked to develop it. Small cell lung cancer often spreads quite early on and so your doctors may recommend chemotherapy treatment rather than surgery.

 

Non small cell lung cancer

There are three common types of non small cell lung cancer. These are grouped together because they behave in a similar way and respond to treatment in a different way to small cell lung cancer. They make up about 87 out of 100 lung cancers in the UK (87%). The three types are squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma and large cell carcinoma.

Squamous cell cancer

This is the most common type of primary lung cancer. It develops from the cells that line the airways and it is often found near the centre of the lung in one of the main airways (the left or right bronchus). This type of cancer is often due to smoking. The number of people developing squamous cell lung cancer is going down in the UK.

Adenocarcinoma

This type of lung cancer also develops from the cells that line the airways. But it develops from a particular type of cell that produces mucus (phlegm). It is often found in the outer areas of the lungs. The number of people developing adenocarcinoma is increasing and it may soon become more common in the UK than squamous cell lung cancer. There are different sub types of adenocarcinoma of the lung. Bronchiolo alveolar carcinoma (BAC) is one of these sub types.

Large cell carcinoma

This is so called because the cells look large and rounded under a microscope. This type of lung cancer tends to grow quite quickly.

Unknown type

Occasionally it is not possible to work out which type of non small cell lung cancer you have. It may not be possible to tell if only a few cells are taken during a biopsy. It can also be difficult if the cells are very undeveloped. Undeveloped cancer cells are known as undifferentiated cells. So your doctor will say that you have undifferentiated non small cell lung cancer. This will not usually make any difference to your treatment, because most non small cell lung cancers are treated in the same way.

 

Cancer that has spread into the lung

If you have had cancer elsewhere in your body and it has spread to another part of the body, this is a secondary cancer. Quite a few different types of cancer can spread to the lung, including breast cancer and bowel cancer. If you are diagnosed with cancer in the lung and have already had another type of cancer, check with your doctor whether the cancer started in the lung or has spread into the lung.

The choice of cancer treatment depends on where a cancer started. When cancer spreads to the lung from the breast, the cells are breast cancer cells, not lung cancer cells. So they respond to breast cancer treatments. And cancer that has spread from the bowel should respond to bowel cancer treatments.

So, if you have secondary cancer you need to look at the section about where the cancer started. For example, if you had breast cancer that has spread to the lungs, then you need to look at the section about breast cancer. It is important to know which type of cancer you have so that you can find the right information. 

 

Mesothelioma

This is a rare type of cancer that affects the covering of the lung (the pleura). It is often caused by exposure to asbestos. It is very different to lung cancer. You can find out more in our section about mesothelioma.

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Updated: 5 September 2014