When many people consider treatment for lung cancer, they initially think of surgery. While a wedge resection, partial or full lobectomy, or pneumonectomy may be necessary, there are other approaches that can be taken to help eliminate cancerous cells. They include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and various targeted therapies. In many cases, doctors will suggest a multi-pronged approach that combines surgical and non-surgical forms of treatment.
Below, we’ll focus primarily on non-surgical paths toward removing lung cancer. We’ll describe when each approach is used, how it is administered, and how it works to help eliminate cancerous cells.
Chemotherapy is administered (usually intravenously or orally) when lung cancer has spread to other sites throughout your body. It is considered a systemic approach because it kills diseased cells wherever they exist. Doctors will also rely upon chemotherapy to help reduce the size of a tumor prior to surgically removing it. By itself, chemotherapy seldom functions as a solution. Instead, it is used in conjunction with surgery or to prolong the life of a patient with late stage, incurable lung cancer.
As its name implies, radiation therapy uses radiation to treat lung cancer. The rays damage the cancerous cells’ DNA, preventing them from dividing (and thus, spreading) or killing them. Like chemotherapy, it is rarely used by itself, except in cases where the patient’s health is too fragile for other treatment paths. Instead, radiation therapy is normally combined with other forms of treatment, and is often administered both before and after surgery. While it is usually used for non-small cell lung cancer, it can also be effective in small-cell cases.
Newer medications are being used liberally in order to target cancerous cells. They are called targeted therapies. Some of them focus on the proteins of diseased cells while others locate non-diseased cells that are in the process of being used to help spread the cancer. Even though targeted therapies are typically used with chemotherapy and radiation therapy, they also offer an alternative to those approaches. Medications such as Tarceva and Avastin carry fewer side effects.
It’s worth noting that most targeted therapies used today are reserved for stage 3 and 4 lung cancer. That will likely change in the future as newer medications are introduced and new approaches to eliminating tumors are discovered (e.g. severing the blood supply to the tumor, etc.)
The use of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and the increasing tide of targeted therapies does not preclude surgery. In fact, surgery is usually necessary to remove the tumor from the lung. The non-surgical approaches described above are effective when the cancer has moved outside the lungs and chest, and begun to penetrate other sites.
Consult with your physician. He or she can determine the best form of treatment, given the stage of lung cancer from which you’re suffering, and your health. If surgery is necessary, ask your doctor whether a minimally invasive approach is possible.