Are all lung cancers treated the same?

Dr. Daniel Chamberlain is a radiation oncologist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Question: Are all lung cancers treated the same?

Answer: There are two major categories of lung cancer, non-small cell and small cell, and treatments for each type can vary.  An oncologist will also consider other factors when developing a treatment plan, such as the extent of disease, the sub-type of cancer, and the overall health of the patient.  Lung cancer treatments include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and targeted therapy, or a combination of these options.

In non-small cell lung cancer patients, surgery may be used if the tumor is discovered in an early stage and is small enough to be removed without compromising lung function.  In patients who are not healthy enough for surgery, focused radiation can often be a good alternative.  Chemotherapy may be given after surgery to prevent the cancer from recurring. If the tumor has grown to a more advanced stage in the chest or involves areas where it cannot be surgically removed, high-dose radiation therapy combined with chemotherapy may be recommended. Cancers that have spread beyond the chest may be treated with chemotherapy.  In some cases, medications that target specific genetic mutations in the cancer cells, or drugs that help the immune system recognize and fight the cancer, can be helpful.

In small cell lung cancers, the cancer has often spread before it is diagnosed.  Surgery is usually not an option, but chemotherapy is essential.  In some cases, radiation therapy may be combined with chemotherapy to treat the tumor. Because small cell lung cancer has a tendency to spread to the brain, preventative radiation therapy may also be used to prevent spread to that area.

Every patient is unique. Lung cancer treatment should be planned and coordinated by a team of experts to ensure optimal care for each person’s situation.