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Lung Cancer Treatment Options

There are several different treatment options for lung cancer. Standard treatment options include surgical resection, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. However, there are newer and more advanced options that may be available. Treatment options for lung cancer are based on the size, type, and stage of your lung cancer. 

Small Cell Lung Cancer

In addition to standard treatments, patients with SCLC may be able to be helped with treatments being tested in clinical trials (potential new treatments).

A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Talk with your Minnesota Oncology cancer care team to see if a clinical trial is right for you. Learn more about the clinical trials we offer.

Five types of standard small cell lung cancer treatment include:

1. Surgery: Surgery may be used if the cancer is found in one lung and in nearby lymph nodes only. However, this type of lung cancer is usually found in both lungs; therefore, surgery alone is not often used.

Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the operation, you may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that may remain. Treatment that is given after the surgery to lower the risk that the cancer will come back is called adjuvant therapy.

2. Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. The way the chemotherapy is given depends upon the type and stage of the cancer being treated. 

  • When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). 
  • When chemotherapy is placed directly into the spinal column, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy).

3. Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. The way radiation therapy is given depends upon the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

There are two types of radiation therapies:

  • External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer.​
  • Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. Prophylactic cranial irradiation (radiation therapy to the brain to reduce the risk that cancer will spread to the brain) may also be given.

4. Laser therapy: Laser therapy is a cancer treatment that uses a laser beam (a narrow beam of intense light) to kill the cancer cells.

5. Endoscopic stent placement: An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument used to look at tissues inside the body. An endoscope has a light and a lens for viewing and may be used to place a stent in a body structure to keep the structure open. Endoscopic stent placement can be used to open an airway blocked by abnormal tissue. Follow-up tests may be needed.

6. Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy is the use of medicines to stimulate a person’s own immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells more effectively. The immune system uses “checkpoints” — proteins on immune cells that need to be turned on (or off) to start an immune response — to keep itself from attacking normal cells. Cancer cells sometimes use these checkpoints to avoid being attacked by the immune system. But drugs that target these checkpoints can be used to treat some people with non-small cell lung cancer. Immunotherapy is typically given intravenously (through an IV) every 2 to 3 weeks.

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Depending on the stage of the non-small cell lung cancer, the treatment plan will be adjusted. Below is an idea of what treatment plans may look like for each of the stages: 

Treatment for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer by Stage

  • Occult Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer treatment depends upon where the cancer has spread. It can usually be cured by surgery.
  • Stage 0 treatment may include:
    • Surgery (wedge resection or segmental resection).
    • Photodynamic therapy using an endoscope.
    • Electrocautery, cryosurgery, or laser surgery using an endoscope.
  • Stage I treatment may include:
    • Surgery (wedge resection, segmental resection, sleeve resection, or lobectomy).
    • External radiation therapy (for patients who cannot have surgery or choose not to have surgery).
    • A clinical trial of surgery followed by chemoprevention.
  • Stage II treatment may include:
    • Surgery (wedge resection, segmental resection, sleeve resection, lobectomy, or pneumonectomy).
    • External radiation therapy (for patients who cannot have surgery or choose not to have surgery).
    • Surgery followed by chemotherapy.
  • Stage III non-small cell lung cancer treatment is divided into Stage IIIA, Stage IIIB, and Stage IIIC:
    • Stage IIIA: Non-small cell lung cancer that can be removed with surgery may include:
      • Surgery followed by chemotherapy.
      • Surgery followed by radiation therapy.
      • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy followed by surgery.
    • Stage IIIA non-small cell lung cancer that cannot be removed with surgery may include:
      • External radiation therapy alone for patients who cannot be treated with combined therapy.
      • Chemotherapy combined with radiation therapy.
    • Some Stage IIIA non-small cell lung tumors that have grown into the chest wall may be completely removed, and treatment of chest wall tumors may include:
      • Surgery
      • Surgery and radiation therapy
      • Radiation therapy alone
      • Chemotherapy combined with radiation therapy and/or surgery. 
    • Stage IIIB and Stage IIIC treatment may include:
      • Chemotherapy combined with radiation therapy.
      • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy followed by immunotherapy.
      • External radiation therapy as palliative therapy, to relieve pain and other symptoms and improve the quality of life.
  • Stage IV treatment may include:
    • External radiation therapy as palliative therapy, to relieve pain and other symptoms and improve the quality of life
    • Combination chemotherapy
    • Combination chemotherapy and targeted therapy
    • Laser therapy and/or internal radiation therapy using an endoscope.
    • Laser therapy and/or internal radiation therapy using an endoscope.
    • Surgery
    • Stereotactic radiosurgery for tumors that have spread.

In some cases, immunotherapy— stimulating the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells— may also be used for NSCLC. Immunotherapy is given intravenously (through an IV) every 2 to 3 weeks.

Follow-up Tests or Check-ups for Both Small Cell and Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Sometimes, certain tests that were done to diagnose the cancer, or to find out the stage of the cancer, may be repeated. In some cases, it’s to see how well the treatment is working. In others, the results are used to help make decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based upon the results of these tests. This process is sometimes called re-staging.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has returned. These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.