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What to Know First About Your Treatment Choices for Lung Cancer

Lung cancer can be treated. Your treatment depends on all of these things:

  • The type of lung cancer you have

  • The size and location of the tumor

  • Your general health

  • If the cancer has spread to other parts of your body

Treatments can control the lung cancer and improve your quality of life by controlling symptoms of the disease. Right now, there are no treatments that cure extensive lung cancer, which is cancer that has spread to the opposite side of the chest from where it started or to distant parts of the body. But treatment may be able to cure lung cancer if it is found when it is limited, meaning it is confined to the same side of the chest where it started.

Once you know the type and stage of lung cancer you have, it is time to decide on a treatment plan. Talking about your treatment choices will be one of the most important meetings that you will have with your doctor.

Deciding on the best plan may take some time. Talk with your doctor about how much time you can take to explore your options before you must make a decision. You may want to get an opinion from another doctor before deciding on your treatment plan. And you may want to involve your family and friends in this process.

Understanding the goals of treatment for lung cancer

These are the goals of lung cancer treatment:

  • Remove or kill the cancer cells in the lung or kill any cancer cells that may have spread, if it is possible.

  • If all of the cancer cells cannot be killed, slow or limit their growth for as long as possible.

  • Try to prevent or control any symptoms the cancer is causing.

  • Maintain good nutrition because it can help with healing and may help limit some of the side effects from certain types of treatment.

  • Maintain a sense of control over your treatment choices and life.

Types of treatment for lung cancer

There are several ways to treat lung cancer, depending on the stage of the cancer and other factors:

  • Surgery. If you have non-small cell lung cancer that has not spread, surgery is often the first choice for treatment. It is often followed by other treatments. Surgery is used for only a small number of people with very early stage small cell lung cancer.

  • Radiation therapy. Radiation is most often used with surgery. It’s also used by itself or with chemotherapy.

  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs. It is usually part of the treatment for small cell lung cancer, as well as for more advanced stages of non-small cell lung cancer.

  • Targeted therapy. This type of treatment uses drugs that zero in on the specific changes in cancer cells or in nearby tissues that cause the cancer to grow and spread. Several targeted drugs are now used to treat advanced non-small cell lung cancer, either alone or along with chemotherapy.

  • Photodynamic therapy (PDT). PDT is used to reduce symptoms of lung cancer, such as trouble breathing. It may also treat very small tumors in people who cannot have the usual treatments.

  • Laser therapy. Very small lung cancers in the linings of airways can sometimes be treated with a laser on the end of a bronchoscope. Lasers can also be used to help people with advanced tumors breathe better by opening up blocked airways.

  • Radiofrequency ablation (RFA). RFA can be used to treat some small tumors near the outside of the lungs, especially in people who can't or don't want to have surgery. A metal probe is passed through the chest wall and into the tumor, and high-energy radio waves are used to heat and destroy the tumor. 

Your doctor may suggest that you get more than one type of treatment. Getting two or more treatments is called combination treatment.

Sometimes new treatments are available in a clinical trial. You can ask your doctor if there is one you should consider.

Some people use complementary therapies. That means they get traditional cancer treatment along with other therapies that are supportive. You may talk about this option with your doctor or nurse.

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