What’s the difference between small cell and non-small cell lung cancer?

February 11, 2020 | by Brian Myre, M.D.

Lung cancer is by far the most common cause of cancer death in the United States. Fortunately recent advances, particularly in immunotherapy (drugs that help the body's immune system fight cancer) have significantly improved survival rates. There are two main types of lung cancer: non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC), with key differences between the two.


NSCLC is the most common form of the disease. There are several types of NSCLC with the two most common being adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinomas.  Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of lung cancer and the most common type found in patients who have never smoked. 

SCLC is the less common and more aggressive form of lung cancer.

Risk factors

Smoking is the leading risk factor for both types of lung cancer, especially for SCLC. It is very rare for someone who has never smoked to be diagnosed with SCLC, although it can happen. NSCLC is found in both smokers and non-smokers.


The challenge of detecting lung cancer early is that most symptoms of the disease will not start to show until the cancer has already spread. Common symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Coughing blood
  • Wheezing, trouble breathing
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Swelling in the face or neck


Treatment for each lung cancer type is based on the location of the tumor and the stage, or the extent the disease has spread in the body. As with other cancers, catching the disease in the earliest stage makes it easier to treat.

In most cases, SCLC is treated with chemotherapy and radiation.  Immunotherapy is used in situations where the cancer has spread, and is also being studied in patients where it has not spread.  Surgery is used only in rare instances.

Treatment for NSCLC is based on the stage of the disease (I through IV). Treatment options may include chemotherapy, surgery (including video-assisted thoracic surgery and da Vinci® Surgical System), radiation therapy, targeted therapies and immunotherapy.

Supportive therapies and palliative care are available for all types of lung cancer as well. Also, there are many clinical trials underway testing promising new treatments for lung cancer. Many of these trials are open at Edward-Elmhurst Health Cancer Centers.

 How can you stay on top of your lung health?

With our Multidisciplinary Thoracic Oncology Clinic, Edward-Elmhurst Health brings together lung cancer experts from a variety of specialties under one roof. This helps to speed treatment and provide you with comprehensive, more convenient, care close to home.

Learn more about comprehensive lung cancer care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Related blog:

Revive your resolution to quit smoking

Nobody deserves cancer: Lung cancer labels

What happens after you quit smoking?


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