Treatment Options for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

There are many treatment options for non-small cell lung cancer. Here’s a look at what they are and how they work.

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the name for several different types of lung cancer whose treatment and prognosis are often similar. According to the American Cancer Society, about 80 to 85 percent of lung cancers are classified as NSCLC.

If you’ve been diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), you want to get the best treatment possible. The first thing to understand is that there is no one best treatment for NSCLC—only the best treatment for a particular person at a particular time. When choosing a treatment, your healthcare providers will take into account a number of factors, including the stage of the cancer, if the cancer has spread to other areas of the body, and your overall health and medical history.

Here we look at the types of cancer therapies that are commonly used in the treatment of NSCLC and when these therapies might be used.

Surgery to remove cancerous tumors is sometimes used for early NSCLC—and if it can be used, it often has the best chance of curing lung cancer. But operating on the lungs is complex. The type of surgical procedure used will depend on how well the lungs are functioning and the size and location of the tumor. Complications of surgery can include blood clots, and recovering from surgery may take a few months or more.

Chemotherapy refers to different drugs that can kill cancer cells and help stop cancer cells from growing and dividing. Chemo is often given with an infusion, though some drugs are taken orally. Chemotherapy can involve single drug or a combination of drugs, and it can also be used alongside other treatments. For example, chemo may be recommended before surgery, to shrink a tumor so it can be removed with a less invasive procedure.

Radiation therapy
Radiation therapy uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may be used on its own or with chemotherapy, especially when tumors cannot be removed with surgery. It can also be used alongside surgery—either to shrink tumors before a surgical procedure, or to kill off any remaining cancer cells that were not excised during a surgical procedure. In cases of advanced NSCLC, radiation can be used to treat tumors that are causing pain and other symptoms. Side effects can include skin changes in the area being treated, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, and loss of appetite.

Targeted therapies
Targeted therapies are drugs that interfere with specific molecules that some cancers rely on to grow and spread. Compared to chemotherapy drugs, targeted therapies cause less damage to healthy cells—though they still cause side effects, which can include fatigue, diarrhea, and constipation. Targeted therapies are typically used to treat advanced NSCLC, and they can be given on their own or used in combination with chemotherapy.

Immunotherapies work by helping the immune system fight cancer. There are various types of immunotherapies used to treat NSCLC, which work in different ways. Side effects can include fatigue, nausea, skin rash, and diarrhea. Immunotherapies can be used on their own or along with chemotherapy. They are often used to treat NSCLC that is not responding to chemotherapy alone.

Additional treatments
There are other approaches to treatment that your healthcare provider may recommend:

  • Pulmonary rehab. This form of rehabilitation can be used in either early or later stage NSCLC. It involves learning exercises that can help you breathe better.
  • Quitting smoking. If you are currently a smoker, your healthcare provider will recommend you quit. This can help improve lung function and even improve the effectiveness of NSCLC treatment.
  • Mental and emotional support. Lung cancer is challenging for anyone. Counselors, cancer navigators, and oncology social workers can help you address the psychological, emotional, social, and practical aspects of living with NSCLC.
  • Palliative care. This form of care helps relieve cancer symptoms like pain, stress, and shortness of breath. It can also help to lessen side effects from treatment such as nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and diarrhea.

It’s important to remember that NSCLC is a different experience for everyone, and there are many factors that determine the best approach to treatment. If you have questions about treating NSCLC, your best source of information will be your healthcare providers.

Medically reviewed in September 2021.

American Cancer Society. "What is Lung Cancer?"
UpToDate. "Patient education: Non-small cell lung cancer treatment; stage I to III cancer (Beyond the Basics)."
Yale Medicine. "Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "How Is Lung Cancer Diagnosed and Treated?"
American Cancer Society. "Surgery for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer."
American Cancer Society. "Chemotherapy for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer."
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. "Chemotherapy for Lung Cancer."
American Cancer Society. "Radiation Therapy for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer."
American Cancer Society. "Targeted Drug Therapy for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer."
National Cancer Institute. "Immunotherapy to Treat Cancer."
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. "Immunotherapy for Lung Cancer."
American Lung Association. "The Basics of Pulmonary Rehabilitation."
Stefan Andreas, Achim Rittmeyer, Marc Hinterthaner, Rudolf M Huber. "Smoking Cessation in Lung Cancer—Achievable and Effective." Deutsches Arzteblatt International, 2013. Vol 110, No. 43.
Cancer.Net. "Lung Cancer - Non-Small Cell: Coping with Treatment."
Get Palliative Care. "Lung Cancer and Palliative Care."

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