How Is Lung Cancer Treated?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: September 2023

Treatment for lung cancer is determined by several factors, including:1

  • The stage of cancer, or the extent of the disease and whether it has spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body
  • The type of lung cancer
  • The overall health of the patient and whether they have other health conditions (comorbidities)

Types of treatment for lung cancer

There are several different treatment modalities for lung cancer, although not all are appropriate for every patient. The treatment recommended for each patient will be customized based on the cancer stage, tumor type, and general health of the patient. Treatment options may include:1

  • Surgery – removal of the tumor, which may include removing a portion or all of a lung; surgery is generally only recommended in certain early stage lung cancers
  • Radiation therapy – the use of high-energy rays targeted on the cancer
  • Chemotherapy – the use of drugs to kill cancer cells
  • Targeted therapy – a class of drugs that focuses on specific genetic mutations present in the tumor cells
  • Immunotherapy – a class of drugs that boosts the patient’s immune system to find and destroy cancer cells
  • Radiofrequency ablation - the use of high-energy electrical waves to heat and destroy cancer cells
  • Tissue-agnostic treatment: a type of treatment that treats various forms of cancer as long as the cancer has a specific genetic mutation or biomarker that is targeted by the treatment
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation - used to help improve lung functioning in patients with lung cancer and other chronic lung diseases
  • Palliative care – supportive care that does not treat the cancer itself, but aims to improve quality of life and is done concurrently with other treatment
  • Complementary medicine – practices which are used in combination with traditional medicine, such as dietary supplements, massage, acupuncture, and hypnosis

Clinical trials as a treatment option

Clinical trials are a type of research in which new treatments are tested, often in comparison to the standard treatment. If a treatment is proven through a series of clinical trials to be safe and effective, it may become widely available as a new treatment option. Patients that meet certain criteria have the opportunity to enroll in clinical trials to gain access to the most current cancer treatment and participate in the research process, which may benefit other patients in the future. Patients in clinical trials receive excellent management of their care and are carefully monitored throughout treatment.

However, there are risks to clinical trials, including possible side effects, the chance that new tests or treatments won’t work, and the potential for additional paperwork and trips to the doctor or hospital.1

Treatment team

People with lung cancer often have several physicians and other health professionals that make up their treatment team. The cancer care team may include:2

  • Thoracic surgeon, who specializes in surgery of the lungs and chest
  • Radiation oncologist, who specializes in treating cancer with radiation therapy
  • Medical oncologist, who treats cancer using chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and other medications
  • Palliative care specialist, who manages symptoms from cancer and side effects from treatment
  • Oncology nurse, who administers chemotherapy, monitors side effects, and provides patient education

Seeking a second opinion

When the diagnosis is lung cancer, there is often a sense of urgency to begin treatment immediately. However, there is typically time for a second opinion (check with your doctor to determine if time safely allows), and because there are often multiple choices for treatment, second opinions can be helpful in providing more information and options. Some health care plans also require a second opinion.1

When seeking a second opinion, copies of all tests, including laboratory and imaging tests, must be gathered to send to the physician giving the second opinion. Some people feel uncomfortable asking for this information from their first doctor, however, the test results belong to the patient. In addition, second opinions are standard in cancer care.1

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