The optimal treatment plan for lung cancer can vary based on many individual factors, including the type of the cancer (small cell or non-small cell), the stage of the malignancy at the time of diagnosis, the location and cellular makeup of the tumor and the patient’s age, symptoms, overall health and preferences.
At Moffitt Cancer Center, each patient receives a tailored treatment plan that may include a combination of lung cancer therapies, such as:
Chemotherapy involves the administration of powerful drugs that target and destroy rapidly dividing cells throughout the body. Due to certain characteristics of cancerous cells, which generally grow and divide much faster than most healthy cells, chemotherapy can be an effective treatment for lung cancer. However, because some healthy cells in the blood, mouth, digestive system and hair follicles also tend to be very active, chemo medications can sometimes affect those cells as well. As a result, chemotherapy may cause side effects such as fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and hair loss.
As a treatment for lung cancer, chemotherapy can be used in several ways, such as:
- To shrink a tumor to make it easier to remove during surgery
- To target cancerous cells that remain in the body after a tumor is surgically removed
- To reduce the pain and other symptoms of a late-stage malignancy
- To address cancer that has spread from the lungs to other areas of the body
Chemotherapy drugs can be administered intravenously or taken orally. Many patients receive a combination of drugs in a series of treatment sessions that span several weeks or months. Usually, breaks are scheduled in between sessions to allow the patient time to rest and recover from any side effects.
Radiation therapy involves the use of high-energy beams or particles to target and destroy cancerous cells. During external beam radiation therapy (EBRT), a powerful X-ray is generated from a linear accelerator and precisely directed to a cancerous area of the body.
During internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy), a physician uses a bronchoscope to place a small source of radioactive materials (usually in the form of pellets) directly into the cancer site or a nearby airway. Because the radiation travels a limited distance, its effect on the surrounding healthy tissues is minimized. The radiation source may be removed later or, if it is designed to gradually weaken, left in place permanently.
As a treatment for locally advanced lung cancer, radiation therapy can be used before or after surgery. If surgery is not feasible, a combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy may serve as the primary form of treatment. As a treatment for advanced lung cancer, radiation therapy can be used on its own to reduce pain and other symptoms.
Surgery may be a treatment option for lung cancer that is confined to the lungs. The goal is to remove the tumor as well as a margin of surrounding healthy tissue and some nearby lymph nodes, which are later evaluated under a microscope for evidence of cancer spread.
Some surgical procedures that are commonly used for lung cancer treatment include:
- Wedge resection – removal of a small section of a lung
- Segmental resection – removal of a large portion of a lung that does not comprise an entire lobe
- Lobectomy – removal of an entire lobe of a lung
- Pneumonectomy – removal of an entire lung
When performing lung cancer surgery, a surgeon may utilize minimally invasive techniques and robotic assistance. At Moffitt Cancer Center, the surgeons in our Thoracic Oncology Program utilize the advanced da Vinci® Surgical System for heightened surgical precision and control.
The researchers and clinicians at Moffitt are continually working to improve lung cancer treatment through clinical trials. Participants can be among the first to access and benefit from cutting-edge treatments that are not yet widely available in other settings. Clinical trials may also offer additional options for patients who experience a lung cancer recurrence after completing traditional treatment.
As a cancer treatment, immunotherapy capitalizes on the power of the body’s own immune system. An important function of the immune system is to recognize healthy cells and avoid attacking them. To help it do so, immune cells naturally contain checkpoint proteins, which serve as switches that must be turned on to trigger an immune response.
Some cancerous cells produce immune-suppressive cytokines, which can effectively turn off the checkpoint proteins and thus may allow the cancer to avoid attack. A class of immunotherapy drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors may be used to treat certain non-small cell lung cancers by switching the checkpoint proteins on and thereby triggering an immune response to the cancer.
Photodynamic therapy may be an option for treating superficial non-small cell lung cancer if the tumor can be reached with a bronchoscope. Within a few days after injecting a light-sensitive medication into the patient’s bloodstream, a physician will use a bronchoscope to shine a light of a certain wavelength onto the tumor. The light will then destroy cells that have absorbed the light-sensitive medication. While cancerous cells tend to retain the medication, healthy cells usually expel it very quickly. Therefore, photodynamic therapy can be an effective lung cancer treatment with minimal side effects.
Interventional pulmonology may also be an option for patients not healthy enough to undergo surgery. These procedures are mostly performed on an outpatient basis, which can help to ensure that a patient is able to continue his or her lung cancer treatment with minimal disruption. Additionally, these advanced treatments typically produce more rapid results than chemotherapy and radiation therapy, opening an obstructed airway immediately without the need to first shrink a tumor.
Lung cancer treatment at Moffitt
Moffitt Cancer Center is firmly positioned at the forefront of lung cancer treatment. We’re proud to offer the latest options, including new chemotherapy drugs and drug combinations, innovative radiation delivery techniques and minimally invasive and robotic-assisted surgical procedures, as well as groundbreaking clinical trials. All of the therapies we offer are overseen and administered by oncologists who specialize in lung cancer treatment.
If you have questions, you are welcome to talk with a specialist in the Thoracic Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center. To request an appointment, please call 1-888-663-3488 or complete our new patient registration form online.
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Bruna Pellini.