Treatment Options for Lung Cancer


Chris Iliades, MD

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Doctor showing X-ray to patient

You have many options when it comes to treatment for lung cancer. The best treatment for you will depend on the type of lung cancer you have and how far it has spread. "Staging" is the process of deciding how far your cancer has spread. Doctors stage each type of lung cancer differently. Ask your doctor what type of cancer you have and what stage it is.

Types of Treatment for Lung Cancer

There are five basic ways to treat lung cancer: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. Many people will need more than one type of treatment.

Three patients who have treated cancer with immunotherapy discuss their experiences.

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  • Surgery involves removing the cancer and some or the entire lung. Surgery may be the best treatment for some types of lung cancers that have not spread beyond the lung. Wedge resection surgery is removal of the cancer and a small wedge of lung tissue around the cancer. Lobectomy is removal of the cancer and part of the lung. Pneumonectomy is removal of the whole lung.

  • Chemotherapy is medication that kills cancer cells. These drugs can be oral (taken by mouth) or intravenous (IV). Doctors often use chemotherapy along with other treatments. Chemotherapy can shrink a tumor before surgery or kill any cancer cells that might remain after surgery. Chemotherapy kills some normal cells in your body along with cancer cells. That can cause side effects like fatigue and nausea. 

  • Radiation therapy uses X-rays to kill cancer cells in the lung. Radiation also may kill cancer cells that have spread outside the lung. Doctors will focus radiation at areas of your body that have cancer cells. However, it may also kill some normal cells. This can cause side effects like mouth sores, a sore throat, and skin reactions.

  • Targeted therapies are drugs that block cancer growth and the spread of cancer cells. They can be pills or IV treatments. Targeted therapies can cut off the blood supply to a tumor, which slows its growth and may even shrink the tumor. Targeted therapies also can strengthen your body’s immune system so it can better fight the cancer. Targeted therapies may have fewer side effects than other treatment options. You may need special tests to know which targeted therapies might work for you.

  • Immunotherapies are medicines that stimulate your immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells more effectively. Cancer cells sometimes trigger an "off-switch" to hide themselves from your immune system. Immunotherapies prevent cancer cells from using this "off-switch" so the immune system identifies and destroys them.

Treating Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common type of lung cancer. There are five stages, 0 to IV. Your doctor will determine your cancer stage by its size, its location, and whether it has spread, either to lymph nodes or outside your lung (called metastasis).

  • Surgery alone is often the treatment for stage 0 cancer. 
  • Surgery with or without chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be the treatment for stage I.

  • Surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and radiation may all be used to treat stages II to IV.

Treating Small Cell Lung Cancer

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is a less common type of lung cancer than non-small cell. Most doctors use a two-stage system for small cell lung cancer:

  • Limited stage cancers are on only one side of the chest. The usual treatment is a combination of chemotherapy and radiation.

  • Extensive stage cancers have spread across to the other lung or to other parts of the body. Treatment is usually chemotherapy.

Treating Lung Carcinoid Tumor

The lung carcinoid type of cancer has the highest chance for cure. That's because a lung carcinoid tumor rarely spreads. It's also the least common type. Most doctors who treat lung cancer consider only two stages for a lung carcinoid tumor:

  • Resectable stage cancer is cancer that can be removed with surgery. Surgery alone may cure many of these cancers.

  • Unresectable stage cancer cannot be completely removed with surgery. Instead, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and radiation are the usual treatments.

When exploring your treatment options, ask your oncologist and the surgeon for details on the success rate of each treatment (or combination treatment) for your type and stage of lung cancer. Your age and overall health make a difference, too. It’s important to have a clear picture of what the treatment means for you, both medically and personally. The facts will help you make a decision and hopefully feel less overwhelmed about the journey ahead.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Sep 21, 2017

© 2018 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

View Sources

Medical References

  1. How Is Lung Cancer Diagnosed and Treated? National Cancer Institute.
  2. Surgery. American Lung Association.
  3. Chemotherapy. American Lung Association.
  4. Radiation Therapy. American Lung Association.
  5. Lung Cancer. American Cancer Society.
  6. Treatment choices by stage for non-small cell lung cancer. American Cancer Society.
  7. How Is Small Cell Lung Cancer Staged? American Cancer Society.
  8. How are lung carcinoid tumors staged? American Cancer Society.
  9. Treatment of lung carcinoid by type and extent of disease. American Cancer Society.

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