Types of lung cancer

Lung cancer is a group of diseases defined by what type of lung tissue the abnormal cells originated in. This is known as the “histology” of the cells. There are  2 main types of lung cancer. Understanding the differences between each type is critical to treatment decisions and outcomes.

In order to determine a treatment plan, you need to know what type of lung cancer you have. This is usually determined by having a biopsy.

graphic illustration of lung

What are the types of lung cancer?

There are 2 main types of lung cancer:

  • Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)
  • Small cell lung cancer (SCLC)

These broad classifications, based on histology, can greatly affect an individual’s approach and response to treatment.

Pie chart showing types of lung cancer by histologyNon-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)

Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer.  More than 8 out of every 10 lung cancer cases are NSCLC.

Within the non-small cell lung cancer category, there are 3 subtypes:

  • adenocarcinomas
  • squamous cell carcinomas
  • large cell carcinomas

Adenocarcinoma is the most common form of lung cancer, and begins in the cells in the glands located on the outer part of the lungs. It is most frequently found in women, non-smokers, and people under the age of 45.

Squamous cell carcinomas make up 25 – 30% of all lung cancers and are linked to a history of smoking. Squamous cell carcinomas are more common in men than in women. The majority of cases of squamous cell carcinoma start in the center of the lung. Often, and at an earlier stage than other tumors, squamous cell carcinomas cause symptoms such as coughing up blood.

Large cell carcinomas tend to grow quickly and are usually undetected until they have metastasized. The rarest of the lung cancers, large cell carcinomas only appear in roughly 1 in every 10 cases. As more precise diagnostics have become available, many lung cancers previously diagnosed as large cell carcinomas are being re-classified as adenocarcinoma or squamous cell lung cancer.

A lot of research is being done surrounding treatments for all forms of NSCLC and there are many clinical trials in the pipeline for patients navigating a NSCLC diagnosis.

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC)

Small cell lung cancer is a much less common form of lung cancer, affecting roughly 1 in every 10 people diagnosed with lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer is particularly aggressive. It often returns after initial rounds of chemotherapy.

Because of the Recalcitrant Cancer Research Act, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), in partnership with the lung cancer research community, is making SCLC a major focus of research, resulting in a greater number of clinical trials in the pipeline.


Receiving a lung cancer diagnosis is daunting at best, but it is important to educate yourself regarding your particular type of lung cancer.

If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms consistent with those of lung cancer, see your doctor. LCFA is here to provide hope, information, and resources for you and your family.

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In fact, you can play a vital role in working with your doctor to determine the best treatment options.

Get answers to your questions about personalized medicine – download our FREE Personalized Therapies for Lung Cancer Q&A brochure today.