Lung cancer treatment
Treatment for lung cancer will depend on the type of lung cancer you have, the stage of the cancer, how well you can breathe (your lung function) and your general health. If you smoke, your doctor will offer to help you to stop smoking before you start treatment.
Learn more about:
- Understanding the aim of treatment
- Treatment options by type and stage
- Making treatment decisions
- Radiation therapy
- Targeted therapy
- Palliative treatment
Understanding the aim of treatment
For early or locally advanced non-small cell lung cancer (stages 1–3 NSCLC) or limited-stage small cell lung cancer (stage 1–3 SCLC), treatment may be given with the aim of making all signs and symptoms of the cancer go away. This is called curative intent treatment.
Because lung cancer causes vague symptoms in the early stages, many people are diagnosed when the cancer is advanced (stage 4 NSCLC, or extensive stage or stage 4 SCLC). This means the cancer has spread outside the lung to other parts of the body.
When cancer is advanced, the goal of treatment is often to maintain quality of life by controlling the cancer, slowing down its spread and managing any symptoms. This is called palliative treatment.
Sometimes palliative treatment can stabilise the cancer, enabling people to enjoy a good quality of life for many months or even years.
Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)
|early (stage 1 or 2)||Usually treated with surgery to remove the cancer and nearby lymph nodes. If you are unable to have surgery or you choose not to have it, you may have radiation therapy, including a type of high-dose targeted radiation therapy called stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT). Sometimes, chemotherapy may be given after surgery to reduce the risk of the cancer returning.|
|locally advanced (stage 3)||Can be treated with surgery and chemotherapy or with radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Immunotherapy drugs may also be used. Treatment will depend on where the cancer is in the lung and the number and location of lymph nodes with cancer. In some cases, targeted therapy may be used to slow the spread of the cancer.|
|advanced (stage 4)||Depending on the symptoms, palliative drug treatment (targeted therapy, immunotherapy or chemotherapy), palliative radiation therapy, SBRT, or a combination of treatments may be used. This depends on the cancer cell type and molecular test results.|
Small cell lung cancer (SCLC)
|limited stage (stage 1–3)||Usually treated with chemotherapy and radiation therapy over the same time period (called chemoradiation). Sometimes, surgery may be used for stage 1 disease.|
|Mainly treated with palliative chemotherapy, with or without immunotherapy. Palliative radiation therapy may also be given to the primary cancer in the lung and to other parts of the body where the cancer has spread.|
Preparing for treatment
Quit smoking – If you smoke, your health care team will usually advise you to stop smoking before you start treatment for lung cancer.
Quitting smoking can improve how treatments work and reduce the impact of side effects such as breathlessness. Research shows that quitting smoking before surgery also reduces the chance of complications.
To work out a plan for quitting, talk to your doctor or call Quitline on 13 78 48 (13 QUIT).
Eat well and exercise – Your health care team may also suggest that you exercise and eat healthy foods before starting lung cancer treatment.
You may be referred to allied health professionals such as a dietitian or exercise physiologist to support you to make changes.
Preparing for treatment in this way is called “prehabilitation”. It can help you to cope with cancer treatment, recover more quickly and improve your quality of life.
Podcast: Making Treatment Decisions
A/Prof Brett Hughes, Senior Staff Specialist Medical Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, The Prince Charles Hospital and The University of Queensland, QLD; Dr Brendan Dougherty, Respiratory and Sleep Medicine Specialist, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Kim Greco, Nurse Consultant – Lung Cancer, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Dr Susan Harden, Radiation Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; A/Prof Rohit Joshi, Medical Oncologist, GenesisCare and Lyell McEwin Hospital, Director, Cancer Research SA; Kathlene Robson, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council ACT; Peter Spolc, Consumer; Nicole Taylor, Lung Cancer and Mesothelioma Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Rosemary Taylor, Consumer; A/Prof Gavin M Wright, Director of Surgical Oncology, St Vincent’s Hospital and Research and Education Lead – Lung Cancer, Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre, VIC.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.