Treatment by Type

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

Treatment for lung cancer is determined by several factors, including the type of lung cancer, the stage of the disease, and the overall health of the patient.

Most lung cancers are non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), which makes up roughly 85 percent of all lung cancers. Subtypes of NSCLC include adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, large cell carcinoma, adenosquamous carcinoma, sarcomatoid carcinoma, and carcinoma of salivary gland type.

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) makes up about 15 percent of all lung cancers. Less than 5 percent of all lung cancers are lung carcinoid tumors.1-3

Treatment for non-small cell lung cancer

There are several different treatment modalities for NSCLC, although not all are appropriate for every patient. Treatment options may include:4

  • Surgery – removal of the tumor, which may include removing a portion or all of a lung
  • 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

Treatment for small cell lung cancer

Chemotherapy is almost always recommended for SCLC, regardless of the stage, as SCLC is very responsive to chemotherapy as compared to other cell types of lung cancer. Chemotherapy can improve the survival of patients with SCLC but it is rarely curative. Because of the aggressive nature of SCLC, many patients develop metastases (spread of the cancer to other parts of the body).1-3

Besides chemotherapy, treatment recommendations are made based on the stage of the disease and may include radiation or surgery. SCLC is highly sensitive to radiation, and radiation therapy can improve survival rates. Surgery is rarely used in SCLC but may be recommended in certain cases where the cancer is considered early stage and is contained to one lung without having spread to other parts of the body. Immunotherapy may also be an option for certain patients with SCLC.1-3

Treatment for lung carcinoid tumors

Treatment for lung carcinoid tumors can include surgery, chemotherapy, other drug treatments, and radiation therapy. These treatment options may be used in combination, depending on the extent of the disease.3

Palliative care and complementary therapies

In addition to the treatments of surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and radiation therapy, palliative care does not treat the cancer itself, but aims to improve quality of life and is done concurrently with other treatment. Palliative care may include pain management or help with physical or emotional symptoms.4

Many patients with lung cancer also find complementary therapies helpful. Complementary medicine includes practices that are used in combination with traditional medicine, such as dietary supplements, massage, acupuncture, and hypnosis.4

It is important that patients tell their doctors about any complementary practices they are considering taking part in to ensure that nothing interferes negatively with their treatment.

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