What Are The Types of Lung Cancer? 

Written by: Lukas Harnisch-Weidauer
Medically Reviewed By: Kenneth L. Kehl, MD, MPH

There are several types of lung cancer. On a basic level, lung cancers fall into two main subtypes: small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)

Just as each person is unique, every lung cancer is unique. At Dana-Farber’s Lowe Center for Thoracic (Lung) Cancer Treatment Center, oncologists work with a team of specialized pathologists that can identify each unique patient’s lung cancer type. With this information, oncologists can identify the best treatment options available. 

For example, genetic tests can be used to find markers like the EGFR gene mutation, which can be targeted using specific medications.  

Small cell lung cancers 

Small cell lung cancers are typically associated with smoking and are often treated with chemotherapy and/or radiation, depending on the cancer’s stage. They are less common than NSCLC but can be aggressive and metastasize — or spread to other parts of the body — quickly. 

Dana-Farber is continuing to build on past research to expand treatment options for small cell lung cancers. The discovery of the PD-L1 pathway in 2000 by Dana-Farber’s Gordon Freeman, PhD, for example, has led to immunotherapies which, when combined with chemotherapy, are showing promise in extending life for some patients. Clinical trials are ongoing to improve the effectiveness of immunotherapy-based treatments. 

Non-small cell lung cancers  

Non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLCs) are the most common type of lung cancer and make up approximately 87 percent of lung cancer cases. They typically grow and spread more slowly than SCLCs. 

There are several categories of NSCLCs: 

  1. Adenocarcinoma: Develops in the cells of epithelial tissues found deep in the lung. 
  2. Squamous cell carcinoma: Usually found in the center of the lung next to an air tube also known as the bronchus. 
  3. Large cell carcinoma: Can occur in any part of the lung and tends to grow and spread faster than adenocarcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma. 
  4. Carcinoid tumors: Carcinoid tumors are made up of cells called neuroendocrine cells. They are often slow-growing and treated with surgery. 

    In early stages, surgery is often a treatment option for NSCLCs with chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, and radiation sometimes required as well. For later stages, thoracic oncologists typically begin with medications such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy, sometimes with radiation. 

    “With ongoing research into the molecular drivers of cancer by investigators at Dana-Farber, treatment options are continuing to expand for all types of lung cancer,” says Kenneth L. Kehl, MD, a physician in Thoracic Oncology at Dana-Farber.

    About the Medical Reviewer

    Kenneth L. Kehl, MD, MPH

    Dr. Kehl received his MD from the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in 2008. He completed his residency in internal medicine at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He received his fellowship training in hematology and medical oncology at the MD Anderson Cancer Center and joined the faculty in the Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology and the Division of Population Sciences at Dana-Farber in 2017. His research focuses on the impact of healthcare delivery strategies on access to care and outcomes for patients with lung cancer, with a particular focus on analysis of population-level data.