Lung Cancer (Non-Small Cell)

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Treating Lung Cancer - Non-Small Cell TOPICS

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.

Occult cancer

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 and possibly other tests are usually repeated every few months to look for a tumor. If a tumor is found, treatment will depend on the stage.

Stage 0

Because stage 0 non-small cell lung cancer 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 (lobectomy) or even an entire lung (pneumonectomy).

In some cases, treatments such as photodynamic therapy (PDT), laser therapy, or brachytherapy may be alternatives to surgery for stage 0 cancers. If your cancer is truly stage 0, these treatments should cure you.

Stage I

If you have stage I non-small cell lung cancer (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. 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 now being studied. Until the results are known, most surgeons believe it is better to do a lobectomy if the patient can tolerate it, as it offers the best chance for cure.

For people with stage I NSCLC that has a higher risk of coming back (based on size, location, or other factors), adjuvant chemotherapy after surgery may lower the risk that cancer will return. But doctors aren’t always sure how to determine which people are likely to be helped by chemo. New lab tests that look at the patterns of certain genes in the cancer cells may help with this. Studies are now under way to see if these tests are accurate. Recent studies suggest that patients whose tumors are greater than 4 cm in size might benefit from adjuvant chemotherapy.

After surgery, the tissue that is removed is checked to see if there are cancer cells at the edges of the surgery specimen. This, called positive margins, means that some cancer may have been left behind, and so a second surgery might be done to try to ensure that all the cancer has been removed. (This might be followed by chemotherapy as well.) Another option might be to use radiation therapy after surgery.

If you have serious medical problems that would prevent you from having surgery, you may receive stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) or conventional 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.

Stage II

People who have stage II non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and are healthy enough for surgery usually have the cancer removed by lobectomy or sleeve resection. 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, the tissue that is removed is checked to see if there are cancer cells at the edges of the surgery specimen. This, called positive margins, means that some cancer may have been left behind. This is often treated with additional surgery to remove any cancer that may have been left behind. This may be combined with chemotherapy (chemo). Another option is to treat with radiation, sometimes along with chemo.

Even if positive margins are not found, chemo is usually recommended to try to destroy any cancer cells that might have been left behind but are too small to see. As with stage I cancers, newer lab tests now being studied may help doctors find out which patients need this adjuvant treatment and which are less likely to benefit from it.

If you have serious medical problems that would prevent you from having surgery, you may receive only radiation therapy as your main treatment.

Stage IIIA

Treatment for stage IIIA non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) may include radiation therapy, chemotherapy (chemo), 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 chemo, sometimes combined with 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 some cases, surgery may be an option as the first treatment.) This is often followed by chemo, and possibly radiation therapy if it hasn’t been given before.

For people who can’t tolerate surgery, radiation therapy, which may be combined with chemo, is often used.

Stage IIIB

Stage IIIB non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) has spread to lymph nodes that are near the other lung or in the neck, and may also have grown into important structures in the chest. These cancers cannot be completely removed by surgery. As with other stages of lung cancer, treatment depends on the patient’s overall health and how well they are expected to tolerate treatments. If you are in fairly good health you may be helped by chemotherapy (chemo) combined with radiation therapy. Some people can even be cured with this treatment. Patients who cannot tolerate this combination are often treated with radiation therapy alone, or, less often, chemo alone.

These cancers can be hard to treat, so taking part in a clinical trial of newer treatments may be a good option for some people.

Stage IV

Stage IV non-small cell lung cancer (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 where the cancer has spread, the number of tumors, and your overall health. If you are in otherwise good health, treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy (chemo), targeted therapy, 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 (PDT) or laser therapy, may also be used to help relieve symptoms. In any case, if you are going to be treated for advanced NSCLC, be sure you understand the goals of treatment before you start.

Cancer that is limited in the lungs and has only spread to one other site (such as the brain) is not common, but it can sometimes be treated (and even potentially cured) with surgery and/or radiation therapy to treat the area of cancer spread, followed by treatment of the cancer in the lung. For example, a single tumor in the brain may be treated with surgery or stereotactic radiation, 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, chemo, radiation, or some of these in combination.

Cancer that has spread widely throughout the body is usually treated with chemo, as long as the person is healthy enough for it. For people who are not at high risk for bleeding (that is, they do not have squamous cell NSCLC and have not coughed up blood), the targeted drug bevacizumab (Avastin) might be given with chemo. Some people with squamous cell cancer might still be given bevacizumab, 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 chemo is finished.

Other targeted drugs may also be useful in some situations. For tumors that have the ALK gene change, crizotinib (Xalkori) is often the first treatment. Ceritinib (Zykadia) can be used if crizotinib stops working or is not tolerated well.

For people whose cancers have certain changes in the EGFR gene, either of the anti-EGFR drugs erlotinib (Tarceva) or afatinib (Gilotrif) may be used without chemotherapy as the first treatment.

If the cancer has caused fluid buildup in the space around the lungs (a malignant pleural effusion), the fluid may be drained. If it keeps coming back, options include pleurodesis or placement of a catheter into the chest through the skin to let the fluid drain out (details of these were discussed in “Surgery to relieve symptoms” in the section about surgery).

As with other stages, treatment for stage IV lung cancer depends on a person’s overall health. For example, some people not in good health might get only 1 chemo drug instead of 2. For people who can’t have chemo, radiation therapy is usually the treatment of choice. Local treatments such as laser therapy, PDT, 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.

You can also find more information about living with stage IV cancer in our document Advanced Cancer.

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 location and extent of the cancer, what treatments have been used, and on the 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 chemotherapy as the first treatment, second line treatment most often consists of a single chemotherapy drug such as docetaxel or pemetrexed, or the targeted therapy erlotinib (Tarceva). If a targeted drug was the first treatment and is no longer working, combination chemotherapy might be tried.

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.

Should your cancer come back, our document When Your Cancer Comes Back: Cancer Recurrence can give you information on how to manage and cope with this phase of your treatment.

In some people, the cancer may never go away completely. These people may get regular treatments with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or other therapies to try to help keep the cancer in check. Learning to live with cancer that does not go away can be difficult and very stressful. It has its own type of uncertainty. Our document When Cancer Doesn’t Go Away, talks more about this.

If treatment is no longer working

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 can be as free of symptoms as possible. If curative treatment is not an option, treatment aimed at specific areas of cancer 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, PDT, 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.

For more information, please see “What happens if non-small cell lung cancer treatment is no longer working?


Last Medical Review: 08/15/2014
Last Revised: 11/10/2014