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Why is lung cancer so difficult to treat?


Once a very rare and fatal disease, lung cancer today, has become one of the leading causes of death across the world. The United States of America alone registered about 2 million lung cancer cases in the year of 2017, of which only a marginal number of the patients got fully cured of the disease.

According to reports published by the American Cancer Society, most lung cancers can be prevented, as they are usually related to excessive smoking (both active and passive), or less often due to exposure to radon or hazardous environmental factors. However, a lot of cases also occur in individuals with no known or visible risk factors. Another reason why lung cancer is so difficult to detect and treat is that a major chunk of its symptoms starts appearing only when a person has entered its advanced stage (Stage 3 or 4). Cancer, at this stage, becomes more malignant than ever and hardly responds to medications, unless given in heavy doses.

Risk factors

Several factors increase a person’s risk of developing lung cancer. While some of these can be controlled at an early stage, many, on the other hand, cannot be controlled and even make lung cancer treatment hard.

Common risk factors include:

  • Active Smoking: The risk of developing lung cancer increases with an increase in the number of cigarettes a person smokes every day. Quitting smoking at an early stage can significantly reduce a person’s chances of suffering from this chronic disease and living a healthy, normal life.
  • Passive Smoking: A person who doesn’t smoke, but hangs around people who do, can also develop cancer. Passive smoking is equally harmful for the health.
  • Radon Gas Inhalation: Radon is a kind of gas produced by the natural breakdown of uranium in the soil, rocks and water. A high content of this gas in the air is a sign of danger. When inhaled in excess quantities, the gas gets accumulated in the body and turns healthy cells into malignant ones.
  • Asbestos and Other Carcinogens:An exposure to asbestos and other such substances also increase the chances of developing lung cancer.
  • Family History: Individuals with parents or siblings with lung cancer have a higher chance of developing the disease themselves.


Lung cancer complications are far more chronic than any other cancer type. This is precisely one of the major reasons why treatment of lung cancer is so difficult.

  • Shortness of breath: Individuals with lung cancer often experience shortness of breath. This is because, cancer, at its advanced stage, grows at a fast pace, blocking the major airways of the lungs. The disease can also cause internal bodily fluids to accumulate around the lungs, making it difficult for the organ to perform its basic functions.
  • Coughing up Blood: The malignant cells of lung cancer cause bleeding in the airway, which further makes a person cough out blood. The severity of bleeding depends upon the severity of one’s symptoms and overall condition.
  • Pain: An advanced stage of lung cancer that has typically spread inside the lining of the lungs or to other parts of the body, such as the bones, etc. can cause the onset of chronic pain in the body. In such a case, a person must seek the assistance of a physician or an oncologist right away.
  • Fluid in the Chest: In an advanced stage of lung cancer, the condition can generally cause fluid to accumulate around the affected lung and the chest cavity. This further causes shortness of breath.
  • Cancer Spreads to Other Parts of the Body (metastasis): In case of metastatic malignancies, cancer often spreads to other parts of the body, decreasing the chances of full recovery.
  • Advanced Stage Complications: Once cancer enters the third or the fourth stage and spreads across the entire body, it causes severe pain, headaches, nausea, and more depending upon the organs affected.

Most lung cancer oncologists state that once the disease spreads beyond the lungs, it is usually not curable. Unlike other cancers, the prognosis of lung cancer is very different and it is one of the most difficult conditions to cure, especially at an advanced stage.

Lung cancer and life expectancy

The life expectancy of a lung cancer patient decreases with every advancing stage. Once the cancerous cells enter the lymph nodes and the bloodstream, they can spread across the entire body and cause grave damage. This is precisely the reason why an early detection is always better – not only for the patient but for an effective treatment.

Other factors which increase or decrease the chances of the disease curing to the fullest include, the age of the person, their overall health condition, immunity level, and how well their body can respond to a treatment.

Furthermore, past statistics about survival rates provide a broader picture of what a person with lung cancer must expect. Though every case is different and so are the chances of survival. An oncologist is in the best position to predict whether the outlook is positive or negative.

The current survival statistics available with medical science do not narrate the whole story. In the last couple of years, new treatments have been developed and approved to cure stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), which apparently is the most common type of lung cancer across the globe. Some people are responding well to the newly developed treatment and surviving for a much longer period than the ones treated with the old traditional treatments.

Below mentioned are estimated five-year survival rates for Non-small Cell Lung Cancer, stage-by-stage:

  • Stage 1: 45 to 49 percent
  • Stage 2: 30 to 31 percent
  • Stage 3A: 14 percent
  • Stage 3B: 5 percent
  • Stage 4: 1 percent

Small-cell lung cancer (SCLC), on the other hand, is a very aggressive disease. Its five-year survival rate is only about 14 percent in total. This means that a person with SCLC survives for not more than 16 to 24 months at max. Median survival in case of extensive or last stage SCLC is six up to a maximum of 12 months.


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