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Lung Cancer Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Gabriela Pichardo, MD on February 14, 2021

Your doctors will plan your lung cancer treatment based on what you need. It will depend in part on:

  • What type of the disease you have
  • Its stage
  • Whether the cancer has spread in your body
  • The side effects the treatment may cause
  • Your age and general health
  • Your preferences and goals

Ask your doctor to explain the recommended treatment plan, including its benefits, side effects, and how it might make you feel during and after it.

Surgery

This is an option when the cancer hasn’t spread too far in your body. It’s usually the best way to treat non-small-cell lung cancer.

Your doctor can remove the part of the lung that has the tumor and the tissue around it. Or you may need to have your entire lung removed. You might also need radiation or chemotherapy after surgery.

After the operation, you might need to stay in the hospital for about a week to heal before you go home to recover. However, minimally invasive procedures are being used more and more often. If you opt for one of those, you may get a tiny incision in the chest. Your surgeon will use a thoracoscope, a flexible tube that is used to examine the chest and get rid of tissue.

If you have small-cell lung cancer, it might not be possible to remove it in an operation.

Radiofrequency Ablation

If you have non-small-cell lung cancer and can’t have surgery, this treatment may be an option.

Your doctor guides a thin needle through your skin until it touches the tumor inside your lung. Then an electric current passes through it to heat and kill the cancer cells.

Bronchoscopy

Sometimes, tumors may block your airways, which makes it hard to breathe. This may cause shortness of breath, a common symptom of lung cancer. To treat this, your doctor may use a bronchoscope, a thin, flexible tube usually with a light at the end. The doctor adds a laser to it to burn away parts of the tumor that may be blocking your airway.

It’s also used to place a stent, a small hard tube, in your airway. This can help it stay open and ease breathing.

Thoracentesis

Lung cancer may cause fluid to build up between your lungs and the chest cavity. This is called pleural effusion and may also cause shortness of breath, cough, and chest pain.

To treat this, your doctor may drain the fluid using a procedure called thoracentesis. A small cut is made between your ribs to place needle or tube is placed in your chest. The tube may be removed after treatment. But if you continue to have fluid buildup, your doctor may leave the tube there for a longer time.

Radiation

Doctors use a machine to point high-energy X-rays at a tumor to destroy it. It works for both non-small-cell and small-cell lung cancers.

You get radiation treatments a few days at a time over several weeks. You might get it before surgery to shrink a tumor to make it easier to remove, or after surgery to kill any cancer cells left behind. Some people get it in combination with chemotherapy.

It can also relieve some of the symptoms of lung cancer, such as pain or bleeding.

Chemotherapy

These medicines kill cancer cells in the body. It’s an option for both types of lung cancer.

You might get chemo before or after surgery, combined with radiation therapy. Or it might be your main treatment if surgery won’t work for you.

Your doctor may prescribe one type of chemo drug or a mix of different ones. You’ll get them through an IV at a treatment center or hospital. You may need a few rounds of treatment over several weeks.

Immunotherapy

It’s a type of treatment in which doctors use medicines to help your body’s immune system to find and destroy cancer cells. Your doctor may prescribe medications based on the type of cancer you have.

Drugs usually used for immunotherapy include: 

Doctors will give you these drugs as an IV infusion. The treatment course can range from 2 to 6 weeks.

While rare, it’s possible to have serious reactions or side effects from immunotherapy. If you have fever, chills, rash, dizziness, or trouble breathing, alert your doctor or your health care team as soon as possible.

Other Treatments

Researchers are constantly looking for better ways to treat lung cancer and help people feel better and live longer. Scientists are studying new combinations of chemotherapy, new forms of radiation, and drugs that make cancer cells more sensitive to radiation.

Drugs that target specific parts of cancer cells or tumors are called targeted treatments. Some of them seem to help control lung cancer that has spread. They include:

Lifestyle Changes

If you’re going through lung cancer treatment, making a few lifestyle changes may help you stay healthy through the process. If you smoke, it’s never too late to quit and you can see the benefits almost immediately. It may help you manage your blood pressure and heart rate.

Tips to quit smoking:

  • Don’t do it alone. Find a support group to do it with you.
  • Manage your stress. It’s a common trigger for smoking.
  • Find substitutes to manage your cravings. You can use nicotine patches, gum, lozenges, inhalers, and nasal sprays.

Eat healthy, well-balanced meals. Nutritious foods can help you stay strong and fight off infections during treatment. If you’re not sure where to start, speak to a dietitian. They can help you come up with a meal plan that works best for you.

Lung cancer treatments may make you feel tired and week. Try to stay active with light exercises like stretching and light walking. This will improve your mood and strength through the process.

Mental Health Support

Lung cancer treatments may affect your physical and emotional well-being. It’s a good idea to find support as you move through the process. Talk to your cancer care team on how you can go about finding resources and help.

Connect with lung cancer support groups. This may be a safe place for you share your feelings about cancer journey and meet others who are going through similar things.

A patient navigator can help you with appointment schedules, treatments options, and medical insurance coverage.

A counselor can talk to about ways to manage and cope with any stress, anxiety, or feelings of depression you may have.

Palliative Care

Treatments can take a toll on your body and you may feel pain along with other symptoms. Palliative care is a form of supportive care in which doctors use medications to ease your pain and improve your quality of life. You can get this during and after your treatment so that you can manage the side effects from it.

It can help with:

  • Pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Problems with sleep
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Palliative care is good for any stage of lung cancer. However, the type of care you get may change depending on your needs and the stage you’re at. Speak with your cancer care team about your options and how it can help you.

Home Care After Treatment

If you've had lung cancer surgery, your nurse or doctor can show you how to care for your surgical cut and let you know what things will help you recover.

To ease skin irritation from radiation therapy, wear loose clothes, protect your chest from UV rays by avoiding the sun and wearing sunscreen, and use aloe vera or vitamin E cream. Don’t use other skin lotions unless your doctor says they’re OK. Also, don't let your skin get too hot or cold.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

National Cancer Institute.

National Institutes of Health.

American Lung Association: “Supportive (Palliative) Care for Lung Cancer,” “Top Tips for quitting Smoking.”

American Cancer Society: “Immunotherapy for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer,” “Bronchoscopy.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Manage Shortness of Breath with Lung Cancer,” “5 Healthy Habits That Help You During Lung Cancer Treatment,” “Support for Lung Cancer Treatment.”

American Thoracic Society: “Thoracentesis.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Pleural Effusion Causes, Signs & Treatment.”

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