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Inoperable Lung Cancer


Updated July 14, 2014

One of the more confusing terms we use when discussing lung cancer is the word “inoperable.” For those of us in medicine, it helps us place individuals in a category. Inoperable means that surgery is not the recommended treatment. Yet, sitting on the other side of the table as a patient, these words can sound entirely different. They can sound like a scary synonym to terminal. While “inoperable” lung cancer does carry a poorer prognosis than lung cancers that can be treated with surgery, most of the time there are other treatments that can be used.

Why Might a Lung Cancer Be Considered Inoperable?

Surgery may not be the most appropriate treatment for lung cancer for several reasons. These can include the:
  • Type of Lung Cancer – Surgery is most often performed for non-small cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer tends to spread early, and surgery is usually suggested only for very small tumors.

  • Stage of Lung Cancer – Surgery is usually considered for stage 1, stage 2 and stage 3A non-small cell lung cancer. Stage 3B and stage 4 lung cancers are most often treated with non-surgical methods, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

  • Location of the Lung Cancer – If a lung tumor is located near vital structures, such as the heart, treatment options other than surgery are usually preferred.

  • General Health – Due to the risks related to lung surgery and general anesthesia, some medical conditions could make surgery too dangerous.

  • Lung Function – If breathing is already compromised by conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other lung diseases, surgery could further reduce lung function.

What Treatments Are Available for Inoperable Lung Cancer?

Even though a lung cancer is considered inoperable, several other treatment options may be considered. These include:
  • Chemotherapy - Many lung cancers respond, at least partially, to chemotherapy.

  • Radiation Therapy - Radiation may be used to shrink a tumor, and sometimes, to cure a cancer.

  • Targeted Therapies - These are medications that are designed to either attack a cancer specifically, or to interfear with the blood supply to tumors.

  • Clinical Trials – Many individuals who are diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer choose to enroll in clinical trials, studies that evaluate a new drug or procedure that is not yet widely available for the treatment of lung cancer. A knowledge of the types and stages of clinical trials, a list of questions to consider, and links to online databases and matching services for clinical trials, can help you decide if a clinical trial is right for you.

More About Non-Surgical Lung Cancer Treatments:


Lancioni, R. et al. Response to radiofrequency ablation of pulmonary tumours: a prospective, intention-to-treat, multicentr clinical trial (the RAPTURE STUDY). Lancet Oncology. July 2008. Early online publication 18 June 2008.

National Cancer Institute. Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment (PDQ). Updated 08/15/12. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/non-small-cell-lung/HealthProfessional/page2

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