Treatment for Lung Cancer
If the person with cancer is diagnosed with early-stage lung cancer, surgery may be an option. The surgeon usually removes only the part of the lung that contains cancer. Most people who have surgery for lung cancer will have the lobe of the lung that contains the cancer removed. This procedure is called a lobectomy. In some cases, the surgeon will remove the tumor along with less tissue than an entire lobe or the surgeon will remove the entire lung. The surgeon also may remove nearby lymph nodes.
Radiation therapy is an option for people with any stage of lung cancer:
- People with early lung cancer may choose radiation therapy instead of surgery.
- After surgery, radiation therapy can be used to try to destroy any cancer cells that may remain in the chest.
- In advanced lung cancer, radiation therapy may be used with chemotherapy.
- Radiation therapy can be used to help shrink a tumor that is blocking a patient’s airway.
- Radiation therapy can be used to help relieve pain from lung cancer that has spread to the bones or other tissues.
- Radiation therapy is often used to treat lung cancer that has spread to the brain.
During radiation therapy, the radiation is produced by a large machine. The machine aims high-energy rays at the patient’s body to kill cancer cells. The treatment affects cells only in the area being treated, such as the chest area.
The person with cancer will visit a hospital or clinic for radiation treatment. Radiation therapy usually consists of treatment 5 days per week for about 6 weeks. Each treatment session usually lasts less than 20 minutes.
Although radiation therapy is painless, it may cause significant side effects. The side effects depend mainly on how much radiation is used and the part of the body that is treated. Encourage the person with cancer to ask his or her healthcare team to describe the side effects that might be expected during or after radiation therapy.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs for lung cancer are usually administered intravenously, which means that they are injected directly into a vein using a thin needle.
The person with cancer will probably receive chemotherapy in a clinic or at a physician’s office. Often there are reclining chairs for patients and they rarely need to stay in the hospital during treatment.
The side effects of chemotherapy depend mainly on which drugs are administered and the dosage levels. Chemotherapy kills fast-growing cancer cells, but the drugs can also harm normal cells that divide rapidly:
- Blood cells: when drugs lower the levels of healthy blood cells, the person with cancer is more likely to get infections, bruise or bleed easily, and feel very weak and tired. The patient’s healthcare team will regularly check for low levels of blood cells. If the patient’s levels are low, his or her healthcare team may stop the chemotherapy for a period of time or reduce the dose of the drug. They may also choose to prescribe medications that can help the patient’s body create new blood cells.
- Cells in hair roots: chemotherapy may cause hair loss. If the person with cancer loses his or her hair, it will grow back after treatment, but the color and texture may be changed.
- Cells that line the digestive tract: chemotherapy can result in poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or mouth and lip sores. The patient’s healthcare team can prescribe medications and suggest other ways to help with these problems.
Targeted cancer therapies block the growth and spread of cancer by interfering with specific molecules involved in tumor growth and progression. By focusing on molecular and cellular changes that are specific to cancer, targeted cancer therapies may be more effective than other types of treatment, but there are not targeted therapies for all types of cancer and at all stages.
Many studies have shown improved survival from lung cancer in patients who stop smoking compared to those who do not. The person with cancer may want to continue smoking; being diagnosed with a serious disease is stressful. Smoking is addictive, due to the nicotine in tobacco, and it is hard for most smokers to quit in the best of times. Many patients fall back on smoking as a coping mechanism that is familiar to them. Encourage the person with cancer to ask about smoking cessation resources from his or her healthcare team. See: Lung Cancer Choices, Chapter 11: How to Quit Smoking Confidently and Successfully
To find out more about the specific medicines that the person with cancer is receiving, we again recommend the reliable and thorough resources on the National Cancer Institute’s website: www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/druginfo/lungcancer.