Lung Cancer Treatment

The three primary forms of treatment for lung cancer are surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. One or more of these therapies may be used to treat lung cancer, depending on the type and stage of the disease as well as your age and overall health.

Surgery

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Surgery is primarily used to remove the cancerous tumor from the lung. This therapy, called surgical resection, is usually used when the cancer has not spread to other tissues in the chest or elsewhere in the body and a total cure can be hoped for. It may be the first type of treatment you receive or it may follow chemotherapy and/or radiation, which are sometimes used first to shrink the size of the tumor(s). A surgeon usually removes nearby lymph nodes to check them for cancer. Three types of surgery are used in the treatment of lung cancer:

  • Wedge or segmental resection: A small part of lung is removed. This is usually reserved for patients whose lung function does not allow larger resection.
  • Lobectomy: An entire section (lobe) of the lung is removed.
  • Pneumonectomy: Removal of the entire lung.

There are cases where initial surgery is not recommended. For example, when:

  • cancer has spread to the other lung
  • cancer has grown from the lung into other organs in the chest
  • cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck or to other organs, such as the liver, kidneys or brain
  • there are other health-related problems

Lung Cancer Treatment (cont.)

When the tumor(s) is large or located in an area where surgery might be difficult, or the cancer has spread to the other lung or into other organs in the chest, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy may be used first. In some cases the tumor is reduced enough to be surgically removed.

Surgery causes a number of side effects, some of which may go away within days or weeks, some of which may last for longer periods of time. Pain is an expected side effect and immediately after surgery patients are usually provided with effective medications. Some pain, though, is tenacious. Many people who have lung surgery complain of lasting pain at the incision sites. This is especially difficult for women because the incision line is often right at the bra line. Many women find alternatives to tight clothing to avoid this irritating and lasting pain.

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Another side effect that is not often mentioned is the stress of the surgery itself, along with the stress on the body from the anesthetic and other medications used during surgery. These all tend to reduce the ability of your natural immune system to ward off infection.

Radiation Therapy

Many women with lung cancer will need radiation therapy at some time during their illness, either as treatment or as a means of symptom management (palliation). Radiation therapy consists of directing a beam of high-energy rays at a tumor. By injuring cancer cells so that they cannot continue to multiply, the radiation slows down or stops tumor growth. The amount of radiation is based on the size and location of the tumor. Some of the side effects associated with radiation include fatigue, dry or sore throat, skin irritation, loss of hair (in the treated area only).

Lung Cancer Treatment (cont.)

Chemotherapy

Anticancer drugs are taken intravenously or occasionally orally and circulate throughout the bloodstream. Chemotherapy is usually administered in an outpatient setting and in regular cycles (that is, at regular intervals and at the same doses) for several months, but rarely given for more than eight cycles. A wide variety of chemotherapy drugs are used for the treatment of lung cancer. In 2000, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) released treatment guidelines for non-small cell lung cancer that recommend that at least one of the drugs be either carboplatin (Paraplatin) or cisplatin (Platinol).

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The other most commonly used drugs are docetaxel (Taxotere) and paclitaxel (Taxol), vinorelbine (Navelbine), vinblastine and gemcitabine (Gemzar). Patients with small cell cancer are usually treated with cisplatin plus etoposide (VePesid) or irinotecan (Camptosar). These drugs and others are used in a variety of combinations. Because they reach all the parts of your body, they also affect normal cancer cells.

Chemotherapy can be used to attempt to cure the cancer, slow its growth, keep it from spreading or relieve symptoms. Even if chemotherapy does not cure the disease, studies have consistently shown that it can help lung cancer patients live longer and more comfortably. Side effects vary greatly. The most common include nausea and vomiting, hair loss, fatigue, susceptibility to infection, and/or constipation. Your health care professional can help you manage these side effects but you must be sure to communicate how you feel.

Copyright 2003

National Women's Health Resource Center Inc. (NWHRC).