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Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Veena Angle, MBBS, MD and Physician Chu I Ta on June 20, 2022

What Are The Stages Of Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer symptoms may vary, depending on what stage you're in. TCM is an extremely effective way to help manage those symptoms to help you recover faster.

Lung cancer min scaled

Lung cancer is by far the most deadly and dangerous form of cancer. It makes up about 25% of all cancer-related deaths. In fact, more people die from lung cancer each year than breast, colon, and prostate cancers combined.

Early prevention is the key to recovery. Because of this, it’s important to know the stages of lung cancer so you and your doctor can more easily identify symptoms.

In this article, we will describe the stages of lung cancer to help you better understand how the disease progresses. We will also provide tips for overcoming your condition using holistic remedies.

What Is Lung Cancer?

Smoking may lead to lung cancer. Therefore, quitting is key to prevention.

Lung cancer occurs when cells in your lungs mutate and grow uncontrollably. They develop tumors that interfere with your body’s normal functioning.

One cause of lung cancer includes exposure to harmful substances, such as smoking or inhaling second-hand smoke, asbestos, radon or radium, and a host of other harmful chemicals. Having a relative with lung cancer also increases your risk.

Lung Cancer Stages And Symptoms

The more common of the two main types of lung cancer is non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). This accounts for about 80% of cases.

Within NSCLC, there are four general stages of the disease, though some descriptions also include Stage 0 prior to Stage I. 

Stage 0

Cancer cells are found only in the top-most lining of the lung or bronchus and haven’t spread. Outward symptoms are rare.

Surgery is usually enough to cure this very early stage of cancer if the patient is healthy enough. Photodynamic therapy, laser therapy, and brachytherapy (internal radiation) are alternatives to surgery. 

Stage 1

A tumor appears in one lung but hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes. This stage is further divided into Stage IA and Stage IB, depending on the size of the tumor. Outward symptoms are rare, but may still appear. They include coughing, sometimes with blood. 

Depending on the patient’s health, complete removal of the tumor through surgery provides the highest chance of preventing cancer from reoccurring.

Adjuvant chemotherapy may be prescribed to further lower the risk of recurrence. Alternatively, radiation therapy may be used for the same purpose.

For tumors that measure four centimeters across, immunotherapy is another treatment option. Certain medicines are used to help the immune system recognize and destroy cancer cells.

Stage II

In stage II, tumors are larger than those in stage I. They would have begun spreading within the lung, but not to distant organs yet. This stage is further divided into Stage IIA and IIB, depending on the size of the tumor, location, and whether it has spread to the lymph nodes.

Symptoms are prominent such as a cough that won’t go away, wheezing, chest pain, and hoarseness. These occur as the tumor presses on the laryngeal nerve and a bloody cough may develop as the tumor begins affecting the blood vessels. There is also unintentional weight loss as cancer begins to tax the body’s energy reserves.

Treatment options follow the same logic as stage I options, which is to get cancer into remission. Some patients may also have certain gene mutations that make them a candidate for some targeted therapies, such as a particular drug that can target the mutated cancer cells. 

Stage III

Cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the mediastinum (area between the lungs). This stage is divided further into Stages IIIA, IIIB, or IIIC depending on the size, location, and degree of spread of the tumor.

Symptoms become more pronounced, especially sharp chest pain if the tumor has spread to the pleura (the membrane surrounding the lungs). There could also be bone pain if cancer has spread to the bones near the tumor.

During this stage, treatment almost always includes some combination of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgery, which has side effects.

If the patient can tolerate them, it’s followed by adjuvant immunotherapy. In some cases, if radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery are too harsh, the patient may begin with immunotherapy instead.

Stage IV

This is the most advanced stage of lung cancer where cancer has metastasized. This means it has spread to the lining of the lungs or other areas of the body including distant organs.

Symptoms from earlier stages continue, and may also include others depending on the areas of the body affected. This includes:

  • Pain in the abdomen and jaundice (if it has spread to the liver)
  • Headaches, memory loss, or vision loss (if it has spread to the brain)
  • Aches and pain in the hips, back, and shoulders (if it has spread to the nearby bones)
  • Difficulty swallowing or throat pain (if it has spread to the esophagus)

During this stage, treatment is primarily aimed at managing symptoms, as curing the cancer is very unlikely. Treatment options include all the other options available in earlier stages, depending on the health of the patient.

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is less common, but spreads more rapidly and has usually spread to other parts of the body upon diagnosis.

Because of this, SCLC only has two stages:  

  • Limited stage: The cancer is found in one lung and hasn’t spread to the mediastinum (the area between the lungs). 
  • Extensive stage: Cancer has spread to tissue in the other lung or other organs in the body. 

How Can TCM Help With Lung Cancer?

A plate of white bird's nests with goji berries on a red Chinese silk table top
Bird’s nest contains anti-inflammatory properties that can help strengthen the lungs.

Holistic approaches such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can support cancer treatment, with evidence mounting as to its effectiveness.

For example, research shows that edible bird’s nest helps improve lung function and lung strength. This may help with the recovery process. It works by nourishing Lung Yin, dissipating Phlegm, and relieving cough.

We spoke to TCM Physician Chu I Ta, who recommended some other TCM remedies based on the cancer treatment type. 


Surgical procedures to remove malignant tumors can be very draining and tiring to the body. Physician Chu recommends post-surgical formulas like Ba Zhen Tang or Dang Gui Bu Xue Tang decoction formulations for Qi and Blood Deficiency. Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang can help with Spleen and Stomach Deficiency. 


Radiotherapy uses X-rays to kill cancer cells, which can leave the patient feeling tired and weakened. They might be suffering from TCM syndromes such as toxic Heat and Stasis/Stagnation that include symptoms like fever, ulcer, sore throat, chest pain, cough, vomiting, headache, and constipation.

For these ailments, a TCM practitioner may consider Qing Qi Hua Tan Tang and Tao Hong Si Wu Tang decoctions. 

Qi and Yin Deficiency may also result, leading to dry mouth, reduced appetite, bloody coughing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and paleness. For this, Physician Chu recommends the Bai He Gu Jin Tang decoction.


Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that gets a bad name for the severe side effects it brings, especially nausea and vomiting.

“TCM recognizes this as the incoordination of Spleen and Stomach, resulting in gastrointestinal reactions to the chemotherapy, such as distention, weak appetite, nausea, indigestion, and diarrhea. For these symptoms, I recommend Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang and Ju Pi Zhu Ru Tang,” he shares.

TCM formulations used for Qi and Blood Deficiency after surgery may also be used here. A patient may also be inflicted with Liver and Kidney Yin Deficiency, for which Physician Chu recommends Liu Wei Di Huang Wan.

Targeted therapy can cause skin rashes due to Heat and Toxin Blood Stagnation. The TCM formulation Qing Wen Bai Du Yin can help with this. If an epigastric reaction also occurs, the patient may be prescribed Shen Ling Bai Zhu San.

Final Thoughts On Lung Cancer

A lung cancer diagnosis is evidently a scary and worrying matter, but catching it early can help prevent it from advancing. Together with treatments offered by Western medicine, holistic supportive therapies like TCM can hopefully help make your journey to healing a little more bearable. 

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