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Home > Living Well > Health Library > Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Patient Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Non-small cell lung cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the lung.
The lungs are a pair of cone-shaped breathing organs in the chest. The lungs bring oxygen into the body as you breathe in. They release carbon dioxide, a waste product of the body's cells, as you breathe out. Each lung has sections called lobes. The left lung has two lobes. The right lung is slightly larger and has three lobes. Two tubes called bronchi lead from the trachea (windpipe) to the right and left lungs. The bronchi are sometimes also involved in lung cancer. Tiny air sacs called alveoli and small tubes called bronchioles make up the inside of the lungs.Anatomy of the respiratory system, showing the trachea and both lungs and their lobes and airways. Lymph nodes and the diaphragm are also shown. Oxygen is inhaled into the lungs and passes through the thin membranes of the alveoli and into the bloodstream (see inset).
A thin membrane called the pleura covers the outside of each lung and lines the inside wall of the chest cavity. This creates a sac called the pleural cavity. The pleural cavity normally contains a small amount of fluid that helps the lungs move smoothly in the chest when you breathe.
There are two main types of lung cancer: non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer.
See the following PDQ summaries for more information about lung cancer:
There are several types of non-small cell lung cancer.
Each type of non-small cell lung cancer has different kinds of cancer cells. The cancer cells of each type grow and spread in different ways. The types of non-small cell lung cancer are named for the kinds of cells found in the cancer and how the cells look under a microscope:
Other less common types of non-small cell lung cancer are: pleomorphic, carcinoid tumor, salivary gland carcinoma, and unclassified carcinoma.
Smoking is the major risk factor for non-small cell lung cancer.
Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk to your doctor if you think you may be at risk for lung cancer.
Risk factors for lung cancer include the following:
Older age is the main risk factor for most cancers. The chance of getting cancer increases as you get older.
When smoking is combined with other risk factors, the risk of lung cancer is increased.
Signs of non-small cell lung cancer include a cough that doesn't go away and shortness of breath.
Sometimes lung cancer does not cause any signs or symptoms. It may be found during a chest x-ray done for another condition. Signs and symptoms may be caused by lung cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:
Tests that examine the lungs are used to diagnose and stage non-small cell lung cancer.
Tests and procedures to detect, diagnose, and stage non-small cell lung cancer are often done at the same time. Some of the following tests and procedures may be used:
If lung cancer is suspected, a biopsy is done.
One of the following types of biopsies is usually used:
An endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) is a type of ultrasound that may be used to guide an FNA biopsy of the lung, lymph nodes, or other areas. EUS is a procedure in which an endoscope is inserted into the body. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. A probe at the end of the endoscope is used to bounce high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram.
One or more of the following laboratory tests may be done to study the tissue samples:
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis and treatment options depend on the following:
For most patients with non-small cell lung cancer, current treatments do not cure the cancer.
If lung cancer is found, taking part in one of the many clinical trials being done to improve treatment should be considered. Clinical trials are taking place in most parts of the country for patients with all stages of non-small cell lung cancer. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
After lung cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the lungs or to other parts of the body.
The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the lungs or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. Some of the tests used to diagnose non-small cell lung cancer are also used to stage the disease. (See the General Information section.)
Other tests and procedures that may be used in the staging process include the following:
There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:
Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.
When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.
The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if non-small cell lung cancer spreads to the brain, the cancer cells in the brain are actually lung cancer cells. The disease is metastatic lung cancer, not brain cancer.
The following stages are used for non-small cell lung cancer:
Occult (hidden) stage
In the occult (hidden) stage, cancer cannot be seen by imaging or bronchoscopy. Cancer cells are found in sputum or bronchial washings (a sample of cells taken from inside the airways that lead to the lungs). Cancer may have spread to other parts of the body.
In stage 0, abnormal cells are found in the lining of the airways. These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread into nearby normal tissue. Stage 0 may be adenocarcinoma in situ (AIS) or squamous cell carcinoma in situ (SCIS).
In stage I, cancer has formed. Stage I is divided into stages IA and IB.
The tumor is in the lung only and is 3 centimeters or smaller. Cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes.
The tumor is larger than 3 centimeters but not larger than 4 centimeters. Cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes.
The tumor is 4 centimeters or smaller and one or more of the following is found:
Cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes.
Stage II is divided into stages IIA and IIB.
The tumor is larger than 4 centimeters but not larger than 5 centimeters. Cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes and one or more of the following may be found:
The tumor is 5 centimeters or smaller and cancer has spread to lymph nodes on the same side of the chest as the primary tumor. The lymph nodes with cancer are in the lung or near the bronchus. Also, one or more of the following may be found:
Cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes and one or more of the following is found:
Stage III is divided into stages IIIA, IIIB, and IIIC.
The tumor is 5 centimeters or smaller and cancer has spread to lymph nodes on the same side of the chest as the primary tumor. The lymph nodes with cancer are around the trachea or aorta, or where the trachea divides into the bronchi. Also, one or more of the following may be found:
Cancer has spread to lymph nodes on the same side of the chest as the primary tumor. The lymph nodes with cancer are in the lung or near the bronchus. Also, one or more of the following is found:
Cancer may have spread to lymph nodes on the same side of the chest as the primary tumor. The lymph nodes with cancer are in the lung or near the bronchus. Also, one or more of the following is found:
The tumor is 5 centimeters or smaller and cancer has spread to lymph nodes above the collarbone on the same side of the chest as the primary tumor or to any lymph nodes on the opposite side of the chest as the primary tumor. Also, one or more of the following may be found:
The tumor may be any size and cancer has spread to lymph nodes on the same side of the chest as the primary tumor. The lymph nodes with cancer are around the trachea or aorta, or where the trachea divides into the bronchi. Also, one or more of the following is found:
The tumor may be any size and cancer has spread to lymph nodes above the collarbone on the same side of the chest as the primary tumor or to any lymph nodes on the opposite side of the chest as the primary tumor. Also, one or more of the following is found:
Stage IV is divided into stages IVA and IVB.
The tumor may be any size and cancer may have spread to the lymph nodes. One or more of the following is found:
Cancer has spread to multiple places in one or more organs that are not near the lung.
Non-small cell lung cancer can recur (come back) after it has been treated.
The cancer may come back in the brain, lung, or other parts of the body.
There are different types of treatment for patients with non-small cell lung cancer.
Different types of treatments are available for patients with non-small cell lung cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Ten types of standard treatment are used:
Four types of surgery are used to treat lung cancer:
After the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:
Stereotactic body radiation therapy is a type of external radiation therapy. Special equipment is used to place the patient in the same position for each radiation treatment. Once a day for several days, a radiation machine aims a larger than usual dose of radiation directly at the tumor. By having the patient in the same position for each treatment, there is less damage to nearby healthy tissue. This procedure is also called stereotactic external-beam radiation therapy and stereotaxic radiation therapy.
Stereotactic radiosurgery is a type of external radiation therapy used to treat lung cancer that has spread to the brain. A rigid head frame is attached to the skull to keep the head still during the radiation treatment. A machine aims a single large dose of radiation directly at the tumor in the brain. This procedure does not involve surgery. It is also called stereotaxic radiosurgery, radiosurgery, and radiation surgery.
For tumors in the airways, radiation is given directly to the tumor through an endoscope.
The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. It also depends on where the cancer is found. External and internal radiation therapy are used to treat non-small cell lung cancer.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy).
The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
See Drugs Approved for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer for more information.
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells. Targeted therapies usually cause less harm to normal cells than chemotherapy or radiation therapy do. Monoclonal antibodies, tyrosine kinase inhibitors, and mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) inhibitors are three types of targeted therapy being used to treat advanced, metastatic, or recurrent non-small cell lung cancer.
Monoclonal antibodies are immune system proteins made in the laboratory to treat many diseases, including cancer. As a cancer treatment, these antibodies can attach to a specific target on cancer cells or other cells that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies are able to then kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading. Monoclonal antibodies are given by infusion. They may be used alone or to carry drugs, toxins, or radioactive material directly to cancer cells.
There are different types of monoclonal antibody therapy:
Tyrosine kinase inhibitors
Tyrosine kinase inhibitors are small-molecule drugs that go through the cell membrane and work inside cancer cells to block signals that cancer cells need to grow and divide. Some tyrosine kinase inhibitors also have angiogenesis inhibitor effects.
There are different types of tyrosine kinase inhibitors:
Mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) inhibitors
mTOR inhibitors block a protein called mTOR, which may keep cancer cells from growing and prevent the growth of new blood vessels that tumors need to grow. Everolimus is a type of mTOR inhibitor.
Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the patient's immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. This cancer treatment is a type of biologic therapy.
Immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy is a type of immunotherapy used to treat some patients with advanced non-small-cell lung cancer.
Types of immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy include:
Immune checkpoint inhibitor. Checkpoint proteins, such as PD-L1 on tumor cells and PD-1 on T cells, help keep immune responses in check. The binding of PD-L1 to PD-1 keeps T cells from killing tumor cells in the body (left panel). Blocking the binding of PD-L1 to PD-1 with an immune checkpoint inhibitor (anti-PD-L1 or anti-PD-1) allows the T cells to kill tumor cells (right panel).
Laser therapy is a cancer treatment that uses a laser beam (a narrow beam of intense light) to kill cancer cells.
Photodynamic therapy (PDT)
Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is a cancer treatment that uses a drug and a certain type of laser light to kill cancer cells. A drug that is not active until it is exposed to light is injected into a vein. The drug collects more in cancer cells than in normal cells. Fiberoptic tubes are then used to carry the laser light to the cancer cells, where the drug becomes active and kills the cells. Photodynamic therapy causes little damage to healthy tissue. It is used mainly to treat tumors on or just under the skin or in the lining of internal organs. When the tumor is in the airways, PDT is given directly to the tumor through an endoscope.
Cryosurgery is a treatment that uses an instrument to freeze and destroy abnormal tissue, such as carcinoma in situ. This type of treatment is also called cryotherapy. For tumors in the airways, cryosurgery is done through an endoscope.
Electrocautery is a treatment that uses a probe or needle heated by an electric current to destroy abnormal tissue. For tumors in the airways, electrocautery is done through an endoscope.
Watchful waiting is closely monitoring a patient's condition without giving any treatment until signs or symptoms appear or change. This may be done in certain rare cases of non-small cell lung cancer.
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Chemoprevention is the use of drugs, vitamins, or other substances to reduce the risk of cancer or to reduce the risk cancer will recur (come back). For lung cancer, chemoprevention is used to lessen the chance that a new tumor will form in the lung.
Radiosensitizers are substances that make tumor cells easier to kill with radiation therapy. The combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy given with a radiosensitizer is being studied in the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer.
New combinations of treatments are being studied in clinical trials.
Treatment for non-small cell lung cancer may cause side effects.
For information about side effects caused by treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI's clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.
Treatment of occult non-small cell lung cancer depends on the stage of the disease. Occult tumors are often found at an early stage (the tumor is in the lung only) and sometimes can be cured by surgery.
Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.
Treatment of stage 0 may include the following:
Treatment of stage IA non-small cell lung cancer and stage IB non-small cell lung cancer may include the following:
Treatment of stage IIA non-small cell lung cancer and stage IIB non-small cell lung cancer may include the following:
Treatment of stage IIIA non-small cell lung cancer that can be removed with surgery may include the following:
Treatment of stage IIIA non-small cell lung cancer that cannot be removed with surgery may include the following:
For more information about supportive care for signs and symptoms including cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain, see the PDQ summary on Cardiopulmonary Syndromes.
Non-small cell lung cancer of the superior sulcus, often called Pancoast tumor, begins in the upper part of the lung and spreads to nearby tissues such as the chest wall, large blood vessels, and spine. Treatment of Pancoast tumors may include the following:
Some stage IIIA non-small cell lung tumors that have grown into the chest wall may be completely removed. Treatment of chest wall tumors may include the following:
Treatment of stage IIIB non-small cell lung cancer and stage IIIC non-small cell lung cancer may include the following:
For more information about supportive care for signs and symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain, see the following PDQ summaries:
Treatment of newly diagnosed stage IV, relapsed, and recurrent non-small cell lung cancer may include the following:
Treatment of progressive stage IV, relapsed, and recurrent non-small cell lung cancer may include the following:
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about non-small cell lung cancer, see the following:
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government's center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
Reviewers and Updates
Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Updated") is the date of the most recent change.
The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board.
Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials can be found online at NCI's website. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service (CIS), NCI's contact center, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. The content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text. It cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless the whole summary is shown and it is updated regularly. However, a user would be allowed to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks in the following way: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:
PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/lung/patient/non-small-cell-lung-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389355]
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Last Revised: 2020-12-03
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