Lung Cancer Prevalence And Survival Rates

Lung cancer is something that many people may encounter in their lifetime. For many people dealing with a new cancer diagnosis, survival rates are top-of-mind. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lung cancer is the second most common cancer for both men and women in the United States. Only one in five people¹ with lung cancer survive more than five years after their diagnosis. 

Despite these statistics, it’s important to remember that lung cancer is not a death sentence. All the survival rates that we will be discussing here today are only averages. 

Every patient, every prognosis, and every cancer recovery journey is unique. 

Before we launch into the statistics, let’s take a step back and recap some important lung-cancer facts. 

Types of lung cancer 

Lung cancer is caused by the presence of malignant cells in the lung tissue. There are two main types of lung cancer: 

  • Small cell lung cancer (SCLC)

  • Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) 

Non-small cell lung cancer is much more common and accounts for 80-85% of cases².

Small cell lung cancer (which is sometimes referred to as oat cell cancer) is a fast-growing lung cancer and much rarer than NSCLC, accounting for just 10-15% of all lung cancer cases³. 

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What’s the risk?

According to the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) estimations⁴, there will be approximately 235,760 new cases of lung cancer in the United States in 2021. 

Of these, approximately 131,880 will be fatal cases.  

A wide range of risk factors can contribute to an individual’s chances of getting lung cancer, including:

  • Smoking

  • Chronic lung disease

  • Age

  • Genetic factors

  • Lifestyle - obesity, and diet

  • Occupational and environmental hazards  

One in 15 men and one in 17 women will develop lung cancer in their lifetime, according to the ACS, and Black men are approximately 15% more likely to develop lung cancer than white men. 

Despite these risk factors, the most significant contributing cause of lung cancer is smoking. As awareness about the dangers of smoking becomes more widespread and more people are quitting for good, lung cancer rates are expected to decrease. 

Is lung cancer fatal? 

Lung cancer can be fatal, but it is not necessarily a death sentence. Survival depends on several factors. The good news is that, as research continues to advance, prospects for survival will only get better.

Life expectancy

Lung cancer prognoses are typically measured in terms of a five-year relative survival rate. 

The five-year survival rate calculates how likely people with lung cancer are to live for at least five years after their diagnosis, compared to those who do not have lung cancer. 

The five-year survival rate will vary depending on the type of lung cancer a patient has. 

A table with life expectancies according to different types and stages of lung cancer.

The five-year relative survival rate for all Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) stages combined⁵ can be calculated at 25%. 

Survival rates 

Survival rates vary according to the age and sex of the person living with cancer and the stage of their cancer at the time of diagnosis. 

Age According to the ACS⁶, the average lung cancer patient gets diagnosed at the age of 70. Lung cancer deaths are at their highest amongst individuals over the age of 65. In fact, very few lung cancer diagnoses are made amongst younger groups below the age of 45. 


Men are slightly more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer than women. 

According to ACS estimations for 2021, approximately 119,100 men will be diagnosed with lung cancer in the United States, compared to a marginally lower 116,660 women. 

Survival rates follow suit. Lung cancer-related deaths are predicted to be 69,410 for men and 62,470 for women. 


One of the biggest factors impacting lung cancer survival rates is the stage of cancer the patient has at the time of diagnosis. 

An individual’s 'cancer stage at diagnosis' indicates how advanced their cancer is, or how far the primary tumor has spread throughout the body.

This level of advancement then determines their predicted length of survival and appropriate treatment options. 

The numbers in this table are based on data from SEER⁷.

A table with the average five-year survival rate for lung cancer stages.

Diagnosing lung cancer 

There is a range of tests to diagnose lung cancer. Currently, screening is only recommended for individuals who have a significant smoking history or are between the ages of 50-80 and who currently smoke or have previously smoked in the last 15 years.

Tests determine the presence, type, and stage of cancer after diagnosis. This helps doctors determine what kind of treatment plan will be most appropriate for their patient’s condition. 

Imaging tests 

As part of an x-ray imaging test, your doctor will take an x-ray image of your lungs to identify any abnormal masses or nodules present in the area. 

After this, a CT scan may be scheduled to look more closely at the area for any small lesions that weren’t picked up by the x-ray.  

Sputum cytology 

Sputum cytology tests can be requested for patients with a persistent productive cough and risk factors for lung cancer.  

These cells can be analyzed under the microscope to identify the presence (or absence) of cancer cells. However, they may be of low yield in patients with low-grade disease. 

Biopsy sample  

A tissue biopsy is the only diagnostic option for lung cancer currently. The previous tests would be considered screening. 

If you need to undergo a biopsy, your consultant will take a small sample of the abnormal cells and examine them to see if there is a cancer present and, if so, the stage to which it has developed. Staging may be assisted by more extensive imaging. 

Biopsies can be performed in many ways. These include:

  • Bronchoscopy – abnormal areas are examined using a lighted tube that is passed down the patient’s throat directly into their lungs. 

  • Mediastinoscopy – an incision is made at the base of the patient’s neck, and a tissue sample is taken from the lymph node using surgical tools. 

  • Imaging guided needle biopsy – your doctor will use a needle to collect suspicious cells from the lung tissue or lymph nodes. If cancer has spread, samples may also need to be taken from other areas. 

Preventing lung cancer 

Though there is no way to completely reduce a person’s risk of developing lung cancer, individuals can take steps to limit their risk factors

Not all risk factors are under our control. These include a family history of lung cancer, race, gender, and age. 

However, there are some external risk factors that we can change to limit our risk. These include quitting smoking and limiting our exposure to carcinogenic substances. 


Not smoking (or quitting smoking if you’re already a smoker) is one of the best things you can do to protect yourself against lung cancer. 

By eliminating all forms of cigarette smoking, whether active or passive (secondhand smoke counts, too), you’ll lower your risk of developing lung cancer.

Between 80% and 90% of all lung cancer deaths⁸ in the United States result from smoking. So, eliminating this root cause is the best place to start. 

Sometimes when smokers receive a lung cancer diagnosis, they believe that there’s no longer any point in quitting. But this is not the case - stopping smoking can reduce your risk of death from lung cancer by up to 40%⁹.

Whether you are cancer-free or in the early or late stages of lung cancer, quitting smoking is always beneficial to your prognosis. 


Another external factor that we should all try to limit is our exposure to carcinogens. 

Gases and substances like radon, asbestos, chromium, arsenic, nickel, beryllium, and cadmium are all risk factors for lung cancer. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends¹⁰ that all homes be tested for radon. It’s also advisable to ensure that your workplace is free from these harmful substances. 

Why do we study survival rates? 

As mentioned at the very beginning of this article, survival rates aren’t an exact science. These stats and figures only provide averages based on population-based data over time. 

Every individual cancer case is unique, and no one person has the exact same prognosis or outcome. 

Survival rates give medical professionals a better idea of treating their patients and what patients should expect after a lung cancer diagnosis. 

Even though there are no guarantees, it can be highly beneficial for a patient to receive an estimated life expectancy or average prognosis after diagnosis. 

Looking to the future 

Cancer research is improving all the time. Clinical trials are constantly finding new ways to prevent and treat lung and other types of cancer at their various stages. 

If you are concerned about your own cancer diagnosis or that of a loved one, learn more about participating in clinical trials. 

  1. Cancer Stat Facts: Lung and Bronchus Cancer | Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER)

  2. What Is Lung Cancer? | American Cancer Society

  3. What Is Lung Cancer? | American Cancer Society

  4. Key Statistics for Lung Cancer | American Cancer Society

  5. Lung Cancer Survival Rates | American Cancer Society

  6. Key Statistics for Lung Cancer | American Cancer Society

  7. Cancer Stat Facts: Lung and Bronchus Cancer | Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER)

  8. What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk of Lung Cancer? | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  9. Former Smokers: What's Your Risk for Lung Cancer? | Johns Hopkins Medicine

  10. Health Risk of Radon | United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

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