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The current state of lung cancer treatment

It may sometimes feel as if there hasn’t been much progress in the development of lung cancer treatments over the years. Historically, lung cancer has been difficult to treat, with few treatment options.

However, ongoing research and the introduction of some additional treatments are giving lung cancer patients a renewed energy and hope. Ask your oncology team about treatments for lung cancer that have been introduced over the years—and how you can learn more about them. Your oncologist knows your medical situation the best and would be the most important person to learn from in your treatment conversations. You can also reach out to lung cancer advocates and ask them about the ongoing research in lung cancer treatments.


Current treatment options for lung cancer


This involves an operation to remove affected body tissue.

Typical goals of surgery:

  • to make tumors smaller before chemotherapy or radiation
  • to remove tumors that haven’t spread yet
  • to remove the lung altogether to prevent the spread of cancer cells


This involves the use of certain drugs to kill rapidly dividing cells.

When your oncologist decides on chemotherapy as a treatment option, it is given with the intent to kill cancer cells, since cancer cells grow and divide rapidly. These drugs do not have the ability to tell healthy cells from cancer cells

Typical goals of chemotherapy:

  • to make tumors smaller
  • to kill leftover cancer cells after surgery or radiation
  • to help biologic and radiation therapies work more effectively
  • to kill cancer that has come back or spread

Radiation therapy:

This works by damaging cell DNA (the blueprint of the cell) in the attempt to destroy cancer cells. Sometimes normal tissue around the area of the tumor is damaged during radiation therapy.

Typical goals of radiation therapy:

  • to make tumors smaller before surgery
  • to kill leftover cancer cells after surgery
  • to kill cancer cells in combination with chemotherapy

Targeted therapy:

This therapy attempts to zero-in on a specific abnormal gene mutation located within the tumor cells to interrupt its growth process. Side effects may occur when these therapies affect healthy tissues.

Before a targeted therapy is considered, a molecular test must be done on the tissue from the biopsy to see if one of these therapies may work. The test looks for mutations that can be targeted. One mutation is the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). The other is anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK). Both of these mutations tell cells, including cancer cells, to grow and divide. It’s important to note that not everyone with lung cancer has these mutations.

Typical goals of targeted therapy:

  • to kill cancer cells, sometimes in combination with chemotherapy


Immuno-oncology uses your body’s own immune system to help fight cancer. It includes treatments, known as immunotherapies, that work with the immune system in different ways.

Typical goals of immunotherapy:

  • to activate cells in your immune system that can attack cancer cells. While doing so they may also affect other cells in your body

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When it comes to lung cancer treatment, your oncologist needs to know your personal goals.

There are many choices to make when you have lung cancer and your doctor needs to know what's important to you. Are you willing to endure side effects, such as hair loss, in order to fight cancer? Do you want to consider a treatment that may allow you to take a long-postponed trip with family? Set objectives and share them with your doctor. Then work with him or her toward reaching them—one by one.

Your oncologist wants to know how you feel and what matters to you

To develop your treatment plan, your oncologist will take into account several factors, including the stage of your lung cancer and your overall health. Your oncologist will also consult with a team of experts before putting your plan together. Your voice is a very important part of this discussion. Be sure to let your oncologist hear your thoughts and feelings about treatment, and the type of treatment experience you want to have.

Here are a few ways you can feel more involved in the discussion:

  • Collect research on lung cancer treatments. (Or have a loved one do it for you.) Many patients keep notes about treatment options in a binder. If you have questions about anything you researched, write them down so you can talk about them with your oncologist or patient navigator.
  • Reach out to lung cancer advocacy groups to learn about the resources they offer to help guide you in these discussions. Many of these groups offer to help you in your discussions. You could ask, "How can I best prepare for a discussion with my oncologist?"
  • Consider a second opinion. If you or the ones you love feel a second opinion would be beneficial, it's okay. It happens all the time. You need to feel you're getting the right care for you, which your oncologist should understand. Not sure how to approach the subject? Here's a script.
  • Speak up when you need to. It is important for you to have an open dialogue with your physician about your treatment plan. Your oncologist can help you understand all of your options, as long as you share your needs and concerns. As anyone being treated for lung cancer knows, there’s more to life than just breathing. You may experience side effects from your treatment and some may be hard to endure. It's important to discuss all side effects with your doctor.

What new treatments are being studied for lung cancer? Learn more about emerging research

NEXT: Emerging Research


Get updates on new developments.

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Keep track of your questions—and ask them!

Use this journal >

Looking for a clinical trial?

Start here >