- How is non-small cell lung cancer treated?
- Surgery for non-small cell lung cancer
- Radiation therapy for non-small cell lung cancer
- Other local treatments for non-small cell lung cancer
- Chemotherapy for non-small cell lung cancer
- Targeted therapies for non-small cell lung cancer
- Clinical trials for non-small cell lung cancer
- Complementary and alternative therapies for non-small cell lung cancer
- Treatment choices by stage for non-small cell lung cancer
- More treatment information about non-small cell lung cancer
Treatment choices by stage for non-small cell lung cancer
The treatment options for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) are based mainly on the stage (extent) of the cancer, but other factors, such as a person's overall health and lung function, as well as certain traits of the cancer itself, are also important.
If you smoke, one of the most important things you can do to be ready for treatment is to try to quit. Studies have shown that patients who stop smoking after a diagnosis of lung cancer tend to have better outcomes than those who don't.
For these cancers, malignant cells are seen on sputum cytology but no obvious tumor can be found with bronchoscopy or imaging tests. They are usually early stage cancers. Bronchoscopy is usually repeated about every 3 months to look for a tumor. If a tumor is found, treatment will depend on the stage.
Because stage 0 NSCLC is limited to the lining layer of airways and has not invaded deeper into the lung tissue or other areas, it is usually curable by surgery alone. No chemotherapy or radiation therapy is needed.
If you are healthy enough for surgery, you can usually be treated by segmentectomy or wedge resection (removal of defined segments or small wedges of the lung). Cancers in some locations, such as where the windpipe divides into the left and right main bronchi, may be treated with a sleeve resection, but in some cases they may be hard to remove completely without removing a lobe or even an entire lung.
In some cases, photodynamic therapy, laser therapy, or brachytherapy may be useful alternatives to surgery for stage 0 cancers. If you are truly stage 0, these treatments will probably cure you.
If you have stage I NSCLC, surgery may be the only treatment you need. The tumor may be removed either by taking out one lung lobe (lobectomy) or by taking out a smaller piece of a lung (sleeve resection, segmentectomy, or wedge resection). At least some lymph nodes within the lung and outside the lung in the mediastinum will be removed to check them for cancer cells.
Segmentectomy or wedge resection is recommended only for treating the smallest stage I cancers (those less than 2 cm across) and for patients with other medical conditions that make removing the entire lobe dangerous. This stage is most suited for video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS). It is not yet clear that this type of surgery is as good as removing the whole lung, even for these small tumors. This is being studied right now in a clinical trial. Until the results of this study are known, most surgeons believe it is better to perform a lobectomy if the patient can tolerate it, as it offers the best chance for cure.
For some people with stage I NSCLC, adjuvant chemotherapy after surgery may lower the risk that cancer will return. But doctors aren't sure how best to determine in which people the benefits outweigh the downsides, so most don't recommend chemotherapy if it looks like all of the cancer was removed with surgery. New lab tests that look at the patterns of certain genes in the cancer cells appear promising and may help with this. Studies are now under way to see if these tests are accurate.
After surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy may also be recommended if the pathology report shows that there were cancer cells at the edge of the surgery specimen. This means that some cancer may have been left behind. Another approach would be to have a second surgery to try to ensure that all the cancer has been removed. (This might be followed by chemotherapy as well.)
If you have serious medical problems that would prevent you from having surgery, you may receive only radiation therapy as your main treatment. Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) may be another option if the tumor is small and in the outer part of the lung.
People who have stage II NSCLC and are healthy enough for surgery usually have the cancer removed by lobectomy, sleeve resection, or, less often, segmentectomy. Sometimes removing the whole lung (pneumonectomy) is needed.
Any lymph nodes likely to have cancer in them are also removed. The extent of lymph node involvement and whether or not cancer cells are found at the edges of the removed tissues are important factors when planning the next step of treatment.
In some cases, chemotherapy (often along with radiation) may be recommend before surgery to try to shrink the tumor to make the operation easier.
After surgery, chemotherapy (with or without radiation therapy) is typically recommended to try to destroy any cancer cells left behind. As with stage I cancers, newer lab tests now being studied may allow doctors to tell which patients need this adjuvant treatment and which are less likely to benefit from it.
If cancer cells are found at the edge of the tissue removed by surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are more likely to be used. Or your doctor may recommend a second, more extensive surgery, followed by chemotherapy.
If you have serious medical problems that would prevent you from having surgery, you may receive only radiation therapy as your main treatment.
Treatment for stage IIIA NSCLC may include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, surgery, or some combination of these. For this reason, planning treatment for stage IIIA NSCLC will often require input from a medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, and a thoracic surgeon. Treatment options will depend on the size of the tumor, where it is located in your lung, which lymph nodes it has spread to, your overall health, and how well you are tolerating treatment.
For patients who can tolerate it, treatment usually starts with chemotherapy, with or without radiation therapy. Surgery may be an option after this if the doctor thinks any remaining cancer can be removed and the patient is healthy enough. (In selected T3N1 cases, where the cancer has not reached the lymph nodes in the middle of the chest, surgery may be an option as the first treatment.) This is often followed by chemotherapy, and possibly radiation therapy if it hasn't been given before.
For people who can't tolerate chemotherapy or surgery, radiation therapy is usually the treatment of choice.
Stage IIIB NSCLC has usually spread too widely to be completely removed by surgery. If you are in fairly good health you may be helped by chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Again, treatment depends on a person's overall health and how well they are tolerating it. For people who can't have chemotherapy, radiation therapy is usually the treatment of choice.
Because treatment is unlikely to cure these cancers, taking part in a clinical trial of newer treatments may be a good option. Several clinical trials are in progress to determine the best treatment for people with this stage of lung cancer.
Stage IV NSCLC is widespread when it is diagnosed. Because these cancers have spread to distant sites, they are very hard to cure. Treatment options depend on the site of the distant spread, the number of tumors, and your overall health. If you are in otherwise good health, treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy may help you live longer and make you feel better by relieving symptoms, even though they aren't likely to cure you. Other treatments, such as photodynamic therapy or laser therapy, may also be used to help relieve symptoms. In any case, if you are going to receive treatment for advanced NSCLC, be sure you understand the goals of treatment before you start.
Cancer that has spread widely throughout the body is usually treated with chemotherapy, as long as the person is healthy enough to tolerate it. The targeted therapy bevacizumab (Avastin) is FDA-approved for use with chemotherapy in people who are not at high risk for bleeding (that is, they do not have squamous cell NSCLC, have not coughed up blood, and are not taking "blood thinning" medicine). However, some doctors may use it for certain patients with squamous cell cancer as long as the tumor is not near large blood vessels in the center of the chest. If bevacizumab is used, it is often continued even after chemotherapy is finished.
Other targeted drugs may also be useful in some situations. For tumors that have the ALK gene change, crizotinib (Xalkori) is an option. For some other patients, the anti-EGFR drug cetuximab (Erbitux) may be added to chemotherapy. This is more often used for people who cannot use bevacizumab for medical reasons. For people whose cancers have certain changes in the EGFR gene, some doctors may recommend using the anti-EGFR drug erlotinib (Tarceva) by itself as the first treatment. In some patients with those gene changes, chemo may be given first for a time, followed by erlotinib. This is known as maintenance therapy.
For cancers that have caused a malignant pleural effusion (fluid in the space around the lungs), the fluid may be drained and pleurodesis may be done to help prevent it from coming back. Then chemotherapy and/or targeted drugs may be given.
Cancer that is limited in the lungs and has only spread to one other site (such as the brain) is not common but can sometimes be treated with surgery and/or radiation therapy. For example, a single tumor in the brain may be treated with surgery or stereotactic radiation (such as the Gamma Knife), followed by radiation to the whole brain. Treatment for the lung tumor is then based on its T and N stages, and may include surgery and/or chemotherapy.
As with other stages, treatment for stage IV lung cancer depends on a person's overall health and how well they are tolerating it. For example, some people not in good health might get only 1 chemotherapy drug instead of 2. For people who can't tolerate chemotherapy, radiation therapy is usually the treatment of choice. Local treatments such as laser therapy, photodynamic therapy, or stent placement may also be used to help relieve symptoms caused by lung tumors.
Because treatment is unlikely to cure these cancers, taking part in a clinical trial of newer treatments may be a good option.
Cancer that progresses or recurs after treatment
If cancer continues to grow during treatment (progresses) or comes back (recurs), further treatment will depend on the extent of the cancer, what treatments have been used, and a person's health and desire for further treatment. It is important to understand the goal of any further treatment – if it is to try to cure the cancer, to slow its growth, or to help relieve symptoms – as well as the likelihood of benefits and risks.
If cancer continues to grow during initial treatment such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy may be tried. If a cancer continues to grow during combination chemotherapy, second line treatment most often consists of a single chemotherapy drug such as docetaxel or pemetrexed, or the targeted therapy erlotinib (Tarceva).
Smaller cancers that recur locally in the lungs can sometimes be retreated with surgery or radiation therapy (if it hasn't been used before). Cancers that recur in the lymph nodes between the lungs are usually treated with chemotherapy, possibly along with radiation if it hasn't been used before. For cancers that return at distant sites, chemotherapy and/or targeted therapies are often the treatments of choice.
At some point, it may become clear that standard treatments are no longer controlling the cancer. If you want to continue anti-cancer treatment, you might think about taking part in a clinical trial of newer lung cancer treatments. While these are not always the best option for every person, they may benefit you as well as future patients.
Even if your cancer can't be cured, you should be as free of symptoms as possible. If curative treatment is not an option, treatment aimed at specific sites can often relieve symptoms and may even slow the spread of the disease. Symptoms such as shortness of breath or coughing up blood caused by cancer in the lung airways can often be treated effectively with radiation therapy, brachytherapy, laser therapy, photodynamic therapy, stent placement, or even surgery if needed. Radiation therapy can be used to help control cancer spread in the brain or relieve pain in a specific area if cancer has spread.
Many people with lung cancer are concerned about pain. If the cancer grows near certain nerves it can sometimes cause pain, but this can almost always be treated effectively with pain medicines. Sometimes radiation therapy or other treatments will help as well. It is important that you talk to your doctor and take advantage of these treatments.
Deciding on the right time to stop treatment aimed at curing the cancer and focus on care that relieves symptoms is never easy. Good communication with doctors, nurses, family, friends, and clergy can often help people facing this situation.
Last Medical Review: 02/17/2012
Last Revised: 01/17/2013