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Lung Cancer Treatments

What Are My Options?


Updated May 21, 2014

There are many lung cancer treatments available for lung cancer. These vary depending upon the type of lung cancer and stage. When lung cancer is caught early, treatment may be curative. Even when lung cancer is caught in the later stages, lung cancer treatments can improve survival and decrease the pain and discomfort of living with cancer. This is called palliative treatment. Surgery is usually chosen when a cure is considered possible. In some cases, chemotherapy and radiation therapy can also result in a cure.


When lung cancer (especially non-small cell lung cancer) is caught before it has spread beyond the lungs, surgery can often be curative. The three procedures performed commonly to remove lung cancer include:
  • Wedge resection – the tumor and some surrounding tissue is removed
  • Lobectomy – a lobe of the lung is removed
  • Pneumonectomy – an entire lung is removed
Common side effects of surgery are infection, bleeding, and shortness of breath, depending on lung function prior to surgery and the amount of lung tissue removed.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays applied from outside the body to kill cancer cells. It is often combined with chemotherapy. Common side effects can include redness and irritation of the skin where the radiation is given, and fatigue.


Both oral and intravenous anti-cancer drugs are available to treat lung cancer. These drugs are used to kill rapidly growing cancer cells. The side effects typically encountered occur when the drugs kill rapidly dividing non-cancerous cells, such as hair follicles (resulting in hair loss,) and stomach lining (causing nausea and vomiting.) Sometimes chemotherapy is given as adjuvant therapy, used along with surgery to catch cancer cells that may have spread microscopically. Most of the time, chemotherapy is given as a palliative therapy, to improve survival time and decrease symptoms.

Targeted Therapies

Newer treatments are now available that target cancer cells specifically. Because these do not attack all dividing cells there are usually fewer side effects.

Prophylactic Cranial Irradiation (PCI)

PCI uses radiation to kill cancer cells that may have spread to the brain but do not show up on imaging. This is primarily used with small-cell lung cancer.

Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are studies in progress testing many new cancer therapies. An oncologist may recommend one of these when treatment options are limited, or as an addition to other treatment. While these trials can offer hope that standard treatments do not, they do not necessarily promise survival will be improved.

Alternative Treatments for Lung Cancer

Several complimentary therapies are available for those diagnosed with lung cancer. Studies are currently looking at these treatments both as an adjunct to conventional treatment, and as a way to decrease symptoms and side effects of traditional therapy.


National Cancer Institute. Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment PDQ. Updated 08/29/12. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/non-small-cell-lung/patient/

National Cancer Institute. Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment PDQ. Updated 08/29/12. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/small-cell-lung/patient/

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