Lung cancer: life expectancy and chances of recovery
One of the most common types of cancer is lung cancer. Life expectancy and chances of recovery depend primarily on the type of tumour and how advanced it is. In most cases the prognosis is poor and a cure is no longer possible. With the right treatment, however, the lifetime of many patients can at least be extended. Here you can read everything important about lung cancer – chances of recovery and life expectancy!
Lung cancer life expectancy: the statistics
Only rarely is lung cancer curable: it is often only discovered when it is already very advanced. A cure is then usually no longer possible. Therefore, lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer death in men and the second most common cause of cancer death in women.
The term survival rate is used to describe life expectancy in lung cancer (or other serious diseases): Survival rates indicate the proportion of patients who are still alive after a certain period (such as 5 or 10 years). The data are from studies. These are average values: in general, they allow the life expectancy of a lung cancer patient to be estimated. But they are not a reliable prediction of how long a patient will live. Many individual factors influence life expectancy (see below).
A distinction is made between absolute and relative survival rates: Absolute survival rates include all deaths in an observed patient group, including those from other causes. For example, if a lung cancer patient dies of a sudden heart attack, this is still included in the calculation of the absolute survival rate.
In contrast, the relative survival rate only takes into account those deaths in the patient group that are actually attributable to the disease under investigation (such as lung cancer). Relative survival rates therefore allow a more precise statement to be made about life expectancy in lung cancer:
Five years after the diagnosis of lung cancer, 15 percent of male patients and 20 percent of female patients are still alive. The same applies to the relative 10-year survival rate for lung cancer: life expectancy for women is slightly higher than for men. Overall, lung cancer has a poor prognosis.
What does life expectancy in lung cancer depend on?
The lung cancer life expectancy of a patient depends mainly on two factors. On the one hand, the stage of the tumor at the time of diagnosis is decisive: in early stages of lung cancer, the chances of recovery and life expectancy are generally better than in more advanced stages.
On the other hand, the type of bronchial carcinoma also influences life expectancy: lung cancer is divided into two large groups – small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). They proceed differently and also have different chances of healing.
Small cell lung cancer: Life expectancy
Small cell lung cancer is less common than the non-small cell type, but more aggressive: without therapy, patients die on average within two to four months after diagnosis. The small cancer cells can divide very quickly. That is why this tumour is growing rapidly. In addition, it previously formed metastases in other regions of the body than non-small cell lung cancer. Life expectancy and chances of recovery are therefore generally lower with this form of bronchial carcinoma.
This makes it all the more important to detect and treat small cell lung cancer as early as possible. In very early stages, the tumour can sometimes still be removed surgically. Unfortunately, this is only true for very few patients.
In most patients, small cell lung cancer has already spread too far in the body at the time of its discovery. Then an operation is usually no longer useful or possible. The most important therapeutic method is then chemotherapy (often combined with radiotherapy):
In most cases, the small cell lung cancer initially responds well to this treatment. This is because the drugs are particularly effective on fast-growing cells, including cells of this form of lung cancer. Survival chances and life expectancy can be slightly improved by treating many patients. In most cases, however, the tumour is only temporarily slowed down in its growth. After some time, the cancer cells usually spread again unchecked.
Non-small cell lung cancer: Life expectancy
Non-small-cell bronchial carcinomas are the most common form of malignant lung tumour. Physicians distinguish several subforms of non-small cell lung cancer. However, the chances of recovery and life expectancy of these variants are comparable.
Non-small cell lung cancer grows more slowly than small cell lung cancer. Daughter tumours (metastases) in other parts of the body only develop in advanced cancer stages. Therefore, life expectancy and chances of recovery are generally better in non-small cell lung cancer than in the small cell type.
In about 25 to 30 percent of patients, surgery is the therapy of first choice. If the tumour is already more advanced, patients are preferably treated with radiotherapy, possibly combined with chemotherapy. Sometimes additional surgery can be performed.
The survival rate is the same as in small cell lung cancer: life expectancy and chances of recovery decrease as the tumour spreads. If it is smaller than three centimetres and neither lymph nodes are affected nor metastases are present, about 65 percent of patients are still alive five years after diagnosis. As soon as the first metastases have formed, the 5-year survival rate drops to about one percent.
Other influencing factors
There are other factors that affect life expectancy in lung cancer patients. These include, for example, the patient’s general state of health, tobacco consumption and any concomitant diseases (such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes). The above table also shows that lung cancer has a slightly better prognosis in women than in men.
Is lung cancer curable?
In principle, lung cancer is curable, but only as long as all cancer cells can be completely removed or destroyed. This is usually only possible with surgery and possibly chemotherapy and/or radiation. With chemotherapy or radiation alone, a permanent cure for lung cancer is very rarely achieved.
Thus, the chances of recovery are mainly given to patients with a small tumour that has neither affected lymph nodes nor metastases. In more advanced stages of bronchial carcinoma, chemotherapy and radiation can often initially be used to suppress the disease. Sometimes this works so well that there is no longer any evidence of lung cancer. But “healing” has not yet been achieved in such cases. Instead, one speaks of a remission, i.e. a temporary decrease. This is because in most patients the lung cancer returns after some time.
Can patients increase their life expectancy?
Anyone who discovers possible signs of lung cancer in themselves should consult a doctor immediately. The earlier the diagnosis is made and therapy is started, the better the life expectancy and chances of recovery from lung cancer. This means: even in the case of unspecific and supposedly harmless symptoms such as coughing, slight fever and fatigue, consult a doctor. Heavy smokers in particular should pay attention to such complaints and seek medical clarification at an early stage.
Moreover, lung cancer patients should eat a balanced and healthy diet. This strengthens the general state of health and supports the healing process. The same applies to regular exercise and sport. People who are physically active also increase their quality of life and well-being.
For smokers, experts have another particularly important tip: Stop smoking! Some patients think..: “It’s too late now anyway – I’ve already got lung cancer!” However, life expectancy and chances of recovery can be increased by stopping smoking.
This text complies with the requirements of medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been reviewed by medical experts.
ICD codes are internationally valid codes for medical diagnoses. They can be found, for example, in doctor’s letters or on certificates of incapacity to work.
- Margulies, A. et al.: Oncological Nursing, Springer-Verlag, 6th edition, 2017
- Seifart, C.: Lung cancer – often detected late and hardly treatable, in “Pharmaceutical trends, issue 30/2006