Treatment Options for Those Diagnosed With Lung Cancer

Once the diagnosis of lung cancer is made, it is necessary to stage the disease. Staging refers to a determination about the extent of the disease. It is important to find out if the cancer is localized (confined to the lung), or whether it has spread (metastasized) to other parts of the body.

Lung cancer often spreads outside of the lung, and it may have spread to the bones or brain by the time it is diagnosed. Before any plan of treatment is formulated, other tests will be needed. Some of these tests include:

Computed tomography (CAT scan). This test involves an X-ray procedure that looks inside of the body and creates detailed pictures of organs and tissue.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). This test uses a powerful magnet, which is linked to a computer, and makes detailed pictures of organs and tissue.

Bone scan. This test involves the injection of a radioactive substance that allows the identification of abnormal bone. It is used to determine if the cancer has spread to the bones.

Mediastinoscopy or mediastinotomy. This test involves the passage of a lighted instrument into the center of the chest to look at the nearby lymph nodes. A small incision is made in either the neck or chest, and the patient is under general anesthesia. Samples of tissue are taken to determine if the cancer has spread.

When your physician has determined the type of lung cancer that is present, along with information about what other organs may be involved, he will develop a treatment plan together with you and your family. An oncologist is a physician that specializes in cancer treatment, and he/she will most likely be involved in your medical care.

The initial period, when it is first determined that cancer is present, can be very overwhelming for the patient and family. Don’t be afraid to ask for detailed explanations (in layman’s terms) before agreeing to any cancer treatment. Write down your questions before you get to the physician’s office so that you don’t forget to ask them. Seek second opinions, if necessary, before committing to any plan of care.

Treatment for lung cancer varies from person to person, depending on the stage of the disease at the time of diagnosis. The following treatment options may be advised:

Surgery. Patients who are diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer in its earliest stages may undergo surgery in the hope of curing the disease. Surgery is generally not an option for patients who are diagnosed with small cell lung cancer. The type of surgery performed depends on where the cancer is located. Some examples of surgical procedures used to treat lung cancer include:

  • Wedge or segmental resection — a small part of the lung is removed
  • Lobectomy — an entire lobe of the lung is removed
  • Pneumonectomy — an entire lung is removed

Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is a form of high energy X-rays that is used to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy may be used before surgery to shrink a tumor, or after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells. Radiation therapy also is used as a primary treatment for lung cancer. It can help to relieve some of the symptoms, such as shortness of breath that result from the disease. At times, radiation therapy is combined with chemotherapy. Radiation therapy is most often delivered externally by means of a machine directed to a specific part of the body), but it also can be given internally by means of a radiation implant.

Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy involves the administration of drugs to eliminate cancer cells within the body. The medications are usually given intravenously. Chemotherapy can be used along with surgery as a way to kill off any microscopic cells that may remain after surgery, or it can be used to reduce the tumor growth and alleviate symptoms for patients who are not candidates for surgery.

Photodynamic therapy. Photodynamic therapy involves the injection of a chemical into the bloodstream. The chemical localizes in cancer cells. A laser light directed towards them activates the chemical, which then destroys the cancer cells.

Researchers are constantly looking for new and better ways to treat lung cancer. If you are diagnosed with this disease, you may be eligible to participate in a clinical trial, aimed at finding better treatment methods for lung cancer. Speak with your physician, who can locate a clinical trial in your area or contact the National Cancer Institute by phone at 1-800-4-CANCER.

External Resources

American Lung Association, Facts About Lung Cancer, 1998
American Cancer Society, Cancer Facts and Figures 1998, Atlanta, GA
Information from The National Cancer Institute’s PDQ Database, Treatment Summaries for Small Cell Lung Cancer and Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer, 1999
National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, What you need to know about lung cancer, NIH publication No. 98-1553 Revised August 1998