Types of Lung Cancer

While lung cancer is the second most common type of cancer, it's by far the most common cause of cancer death. About 130,000 people in the U.S. will die from lung cancer this year.

Although more Americans die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined, there's good news, too.

Lung cancer cases and deaths have been falling each year because:

  • Fewer people smoke.
  • Better therapies exist.
  • Lung cancer detection has improved in just a few years.

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center experts have vast experience in caring for people with all types of lung cancers.

Contact Us About Lung Cancer Care

To learn more about lung cancer care or to make an appointment, you can:

Common Types of Lung Cancer

About 235,000 people in the U.S. will receive a lung cancer diagnosis this year. Most will have one of two main types: small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

About 85% of all lung cancer cases are NSCLC.

There's also a small group of other cancers that affect the lungs.

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC)

Doctors use the name NSCLC for this group of cancers because the way they grow and spread is about the same. Their treatments and outlook may also be similar.

There are three main types of NSCLC. Each depends on the type of cells where the cancer starts.

This form of NSCLC starts in the cells that make mucus. It's the most common type of lung cancer, accounting for about 40% of all NSCLCs — and about one-third of all lung cancers.

Adenocarcinomas start in the outer parts of the lungs and tend to spread to the lymph nodes.

Doctors can often diagnose this type of lung cancer at earlier stages (compared to other types of lung cancer). This means you may have a better outcome.

Two things you should know about adenocarcinomas are that they're the most likely lung cancers to occur in:

  • Younger people.
  • Nonsmokers.

Adenocarcinoma in situ is a subtype that can form in many parts of the lung and spread along its walls. This cancer subtype is becoming more common and may look like pneumonia on a chest x-ray.

Squamous cell lung carcinomas form in the cells that line the inside of the lungs' airways. Doctors often find them in the central area of the chest inside the main airways, or bronchi.

These tumors often stay within the lung or spread to lymph nodes.

Squamous cell carcinomas account for about 25% to 30% of all lung cancers.

This form of NSCLC is the rarest type of NSCLC, making up between 10% to 15% of all lung cancers. Doctors may also refer to this type of tumor as undifferentiated carcinomas.

Along with spreading to the lymph nodes, these tumors may also spread to distant parts of the body.

Small Cell Lung Cancer

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is an aggressive disease that starts in the larger airways. It's strongly linked to smoking tobacco.

SCLC accounts for about 15% of all lung cancers.

Because it is so fast-growing, doctors rarely find until it is quite advanced. By then, it's often spread beyond the lungs to other parts of the body.


Mesothelioma is a rare type of lung cancer. It affects fewer than 20,000 people per year in the U.S.

Mesothelioma starts in the pleura — the lining of the heart, lungs, and stomach.

It's aggressive and hard to treat. That's why people who have mesothelioma must get treatment at a comprehensive cancer center like UPMC Hillman.

Other Types of Lung Tumors

NSCLC and SCLC make up most forms of lung cancers, but other types of lung tumors can occur.

These tumors affect the lung's neuroendocrine cells that help control air and blood flow. They also detect oxygen levels, then release hormones to help the lungs adapt.

Lung carcinoid tumors often grow slowly and rarely spread beyond the lungs.

Smoking isn't a cause of these tumors.

They comprise 1% to 2% of all lung cancers.

ACCL forms in the bronchial glands of the airways.

They're often slow-growing and make up less than 1% of all lung cancers.

PPL is a form of the blood cancer lymphoma that occurs only in the lungs.

These rare tumors make up less than 1% of all lung cancers.

Lung sarcomas have the same type of cancer cells as sarcomas in other soft tissues like muscles, blood vessels, and fat. Doctors treat lung sarcomas much like those that occur outside the lung.

These tumors are less than 1% of all lung cancers.

Pulmonary hamartomas are the most common noncancerous lung tumor.

They tend to be slow-growing, single nodules. Most cause no symptoms, although some can cause a persistent cough.

Doctors often find hamartomas via chest imaging for other reasons.

Lung cancers start in the lungs as their primary site.

Cancers that start elsewhere in the body may spread to the lungs, but they're not lung cancers. These can include breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, kidney cancer, and melanoma, among others.

If this spread occurs, you still have your original type of cancer. For instance, breast cancer that spreads to the lungs is still breast cancer.

Doctors will use treatments for the main cancer site.

Contact Us About Lung Cancer Care

To learn more about lung cancer care or to make an appointment, you can: