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Lung Cancer Treatment

Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy drugs are the most common treatments for lung cancer. Your cancer care team—which may include a lung doctor (pulmonologist) — will recommend treatment depending on the type and stage of the lung cancer.

At Kaiser Permanente, we keep up with changes and improvements in lung cancer treatment to offer chemotherapy that’s easier to tolerate, radiation targeted to the cancer growth, and surgery that is less invasive. We regularly review the latest research findings to make sure our treatments are the most effective.

Treatment for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Non-small cell cancer is the most common type of lung cancer and is named for how the cells look under a microscope.

Surgery: If you have non-small cell lung cancer in only one lung and perhaps nearby lymph nodes, surgery might be all you need. Most commonly, the surgeon removes the tumor, part of your lung, and some surrounding lymph nodes. In some cases, the entire lung must be removed to make sure all the cancer has been taken out.

Radiation or chemotherapy treatments: When lung cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the center of the chest, surgery may not be possible or beneficial. Instead, many patients have radiation treatment along with chemotherapy. These treatments may be given together or one at a time.

For patients whose cancer has spread (metastasized) around the body, chemotherapy alone is the most typical treatment. Some patients may also get radiation to localized spots that are causing problems, such as a painful area of cancer in a bone.

Radiation therapy or chemotherapy sessions will probably be scheduled over a few weeks or months. Radiation treatments are typically done every day, Monday through Friday. The schedule of chemotherapy treatments will vary according to the drugs used and extent of the cancer, ranging from daily to every few weeks.

Treatment for Small Cell Lung Cancer

Small cell lung cancer is named for cancer that occurs in smaller lung cells. It is fast growing and isn’t as common as non-small cell lung cancer.

Surgery: Surgery is usually not an option for people with small cell lung cancer, unless the tumor in the lung is very small. In that case, you might have surgery followed by chemotherapy.

Radiation or chemotherapy treatments: Most people with limited stage small cell lung cancer will have both radiation treatment and chemotherapy. People with extensive stage small cell lung cancer are usually treated with chemotherapy only.

Targeted Therapies

With recent advances, lung cancer now has treatments targeted to how cancer cells develop and survive. Sometimes your doctor will order specialized tests, especially if your cancer has spread around the body. These help predict whether these new targeted treatments might benefit you.

Reactions to Treatment

Side or after effects from surgery depend on the size and location of the tumor and on the extent of the operation. Patients usually spend several days and up to a week in the hospital recovering from surgery.

Side effects from radiation or chemotherapy depend on the dose and type of drug or treatment. Common side effects include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, pain, problems thinking clearly, skin sensitivity, and hair loss. Risk of infection can rise as blood counts (number of red and white blood cells and platelets) temporarily drop.

Some patients may have complications involving the airways or lung membrane (pleura) area. Specially trained physicians at Kaiser Permanente medical offices can provide treatments for these problems using interventional pulmonology. These are less invasive procedures carried out through bronchoscopes — flexible tubes inserted in the lungs. The procedures are used to relieve symptoms or gather additional biopsy specimens for advanced testing.

Your doctor, nurse, nutritionist, and oncology pharmacist can help you manage side effects.

Contacting Your Care Team at Kaiser Permanente

As you discuss your treatment and possible side effects with your care team, also talk about what signs and symptoms require medical attention right away. When you experience those symptoms, you should call your care team for help or advice. After clinic hours, you should call our Consulting Nurse Service for help, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Taking Care of Yourself

It might seem like your life is revolving around cancer treatment during this time. But it’s important to take care of yourself — physically and emotionally — during treatment so you can lessen side effects and move on toward post-treatment recovery.