Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) may spread at different rates. Research suggests the average time for a tumor to double in size is around 7 months. However, this is different for everyone.

Multiple factors may influence the speed and progression of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), such as the:

  • stage at diagnosis
  • type of NSCLC
  • ethnicity of the person with NSCLC
  • person’s response to treatment

NSCLC accounts for 80–85% of lung cancer diagnoses in the United States.

Like all other cancers, NSCLC is most treatable when doctors can diagnose it before it spreads.

Keep reading to learn more about how fast NSCLC may spread.

The spread of NSCLC is measured using a system called staging. The stage of cancer indicates how much it has spread and can help healthcare professionals develop a treatment plan.

Doctors represent the stages of NSCLC on a scale from 0–4. In stages 0 and 1, cancer has not spread beyond the lungs or airways. In stages 2 and higher, cancer has spread to chest walls, lymph nodes, or other parts of the body.

Staging occurs when you receive a diagnosis based on your initial tumor size and spread. A healthcare team will re-stage your cancer throughout treatment.

There’s no set timeline for moving through the stages of NSCLC.

However, getting a diagnosis at an earlier stage can allow you to receive treatment before your cancer progresses any further. This can prevent your cancer from spreading and improve your outlook.

Scientists often measure the growth rate of a tumor in doubling time. That’s how much time it takes for a group of cancer cells to double in size.

A 2019 study found that the median doubling time of NSCLC was 230 days. Some tumors studied doubled in size in as few as 19 days, while others never grew that much.

In contrast, a 2020 research review suggests the doubling time for small cell lung cancer (SCLC) as 86 days.

There are three primary types of NSCLC:

  • Adenocarcinoma: This is the most common type of NSCLC and the most common type of lung cancer overall in the United States.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: This type of NSCLC begins in flat squamous cells in the airways. More than 90% of these cases occur in people who smoke.
  • Large cell carcinomas: This type of NSCLC can grow anywhere in the lungs and is typically fast-growing.

A 2018 study found that the median doubling time varies by type of NSCLC:

Adenocarcinomas261 days
Squamous cell carcinomas70 days
Other lung cancers70 days

Remember, these numbers represent the median — the middle number — of all results.

How NSCLC progresses depends on many factors unique to each person’s cancer. For example, a 2020 study found that different subtypes of lung adenocarcinomas had median doubling times ranging from 229–647 days.

A 2016 study found that NSCLC progresses more quickly in white Americans than in African Americans or Asian Americans. The authors note that the data is consistent with earlier population studies in Europe, Africa, and Asia that looked at survival times and mortality rates.

They also suggest that it takes less than 1 year for a tumor to progress from a limited stage to an advanced stage in white Americans. It takes 1–1 1/2 years for this to occur in African Americans or Asian Americans.

This could influence how often people with a higher risk of NSCLC should be screened.

Some theories have looked into factors that might influence this difference, but more research is needed to determine the exact cause.

Treatments can help slow and even stop the spread of NSCLC. The exact treatment you need will depend on your stage at diagnosis, the location of the tumor, and your overall health.

Treatment options include:

Another treatment option for people who cannot have surgery is ablation. This destroys tumors by heating or freezing them.

Where does NSCLC spread?

It’s common for NSCLC to spread (metastasize) to nearby tissues, lymph nodes, bones, and then throughout the body.

NSCLC can spread to regions such as the previously unaffected lung, the brain, the liver, and the adrenal glands.

Where NSCLC spreads can influence your outlook. For example, a 2014 study found that cancer that had spread to the brain or extremities had the most unfavorable outlook.

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The outlook for NSCLC is most promising when doctors can find and treat it early.

The 5-year relative survival rate for NSCLC with treatment differs by stage.

Stage5-year relative survival rate
Stage 155%
Stage 235%
Stage 315%
Stage 45%

These numbers are the survival rates with treatment. Without treatment, the mortality rates for NSCLC are high. The average survival time without treatment is around 7 months.

In approximately 55% of people diagnosed with NSCLC, the cancer has already spread by the time of diagnosis. It’s estimated that 25–30% of people diagnosed with stage 4 NSCLC die within 3 months of their diagnosis.

These figures stress the importance of early diagnosis and treatment for the best possible outlook.

Does lung cancer spread quickly?

Some NSCLC tumors may double in size within 3 weeks, while others may never grow too much. That said, the average doubling time for NSCLC is just over 7 months.

Can you stay at home with lung cancer?

In most cases, you can stay at home if you’re living with lung cancer. You can still receive treatment and palliative care. However, you may need to stay in a care home or at the hospital if your cancer advances.

What are the signs that lung cancer is progressing?

Lung cancer may affect your body differently as it progresses through the stages.

Signs and symptoms of progressing lung cancer may include:

  • new persistent cough
  • joint pain or swelling
  • bone pain
  • headaches
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • appetite changes
  • recurring chest infections
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • difficulty breathing
  • finger and toe clubbing
  • changes in vision
  • unintentional weight loss
  • jaundice
  • seizures

NSCLC can progress quickly, although not as quickly as SCLC. How fast the cancer spreads can depend on several factors, including the type and stage of the cancer.

Lung cancer treatments are consistently improving. Newer understandings of NSCLC and new treatment options mean that current survival rates are likely higher than those published.

Early diagnosis and treatment are key. Regular screening is important if you have a higher risk of developing NSCLC. Talk with a healthcare professional about how often you should be screened.