Treatment overview for lung cancer

Treatments for lung cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy drugs. This depends on the stage and type of lung cancer and your general health. You may have a combination of treatments:

  • Surgery is sometimes used to remove non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) but is rarely used for small cell lung cancer (SCLC).
  • Chemotherapy is the main treatment for SCLC. It can be given at the same time as radiotherapy (called chemoradiation). Chemotherapy may be given before or after surgery for NSCLC.
  • Radiotherapy may be used instead of surgery to treat early lung cancer. It can also be given with chemotherapy or after it. For SCLC radiotherapy may be given to the head to prevent a secondary cancer.
  • Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are also used to control symptoms.
  • Targeted therapy and immunotherapy drugs are used to treat advanced NSCLC. Tests are done on the cancer to find out if certain drugs are suitable.
  • Ablation treatments using heat or laser light are sometimes used to treat very early lung cancers. Laser can also be used if the cancer is blocking an airway.

Treatment overview for lung cancer

Treatment for lung cancer can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapy and other targeted therapy drugs. You may have a combination of treatments. Some people have a number of different treatments in a row, to keep the cancer under control.

The treatment you have will depend on:

  • the stage of the cancer
  • the type of lung cancer you have – small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) are treated in different ways
  • your general health.

Your doctor and specialist nurse will involve you in treatment decisions, so you can talk about your preferences. They can also help you if you need to make decisions about treatment.


Surgery

If you have non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), it may be possible to remove the cancer with surgery. The type of operation will depend on the size and position of the cancer. For some people, surgery may not be suitable. This might be because of other health problems that would make it unsafe or difficult to cope with a major operation.

Surgery is rarely used to treat (SCLC), unless the cancer is small and has not spread outside the lung. Other treatments are usually more suitable for SCLC, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy.


Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. It is used to treat both types of lung cancer:

  • For small cell lung cancer (SCLC), chemotherapy is usually the main treatment.
  • For non-small cell cancer (NSCLC), people usually have chemotherapy before or after surgery.

For both types of lung cancer, people sometimes have chemotherapy with radiotherapy. This is called chemoradiation.

Chemotherapy can also be used to control symptoms when lung cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Chemotherapy

This video provides a brief overview of chemotherapy treatment, how it can be given, how it works and possible side effects.

About our cancer information videos

Chemotherapy

This video provides a brief overview of chemotherapy treatment, how it can be given, how it works and possible side effects.

About our cancer information videos


Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy treats cancer by using high-energy x-rays. It can be used to treat both types of lung cancer. It may be given:

  • on its own instead of surgery, to try to cure early-stage non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)
  • with or after chemotherapy (chemoradiation), for both NSCLC and small cell lung cancer (SCLC)
  • to the head, to stop any lung cancer cells that have spread from growing into a secondary cancer in the brain (for people with SCLC)
  • to control symptoms, if the cancer is more advanced or has spread to other parts of the body (palliative radiotherapy).


Targeted therapy or immunotherapy drugs

Targeted therapy or immunotherapy drugs are usually used to treat advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

Targeted therapy drugs interfere with the way cancer cells signal or interact with each other. This stops them growing and dividing. Immunotherapy drugs help stimulate your immune system to recognise and destroy cancer cells.

Your doctor does tests on the cancer cells to find out if some of these drugs are suitable options for you.

How targeted therapies work

This animation shows how targeted therapies work and what effect they have on the body.

About our cancer information videos

How targeted therapies work

This animation shows how targeted therapies work and what effect they have on the body.

About our cancer information videos


Other treatments

Tumour ablation treatments destroy cancer cells using:

  • heat (radiofrequency ablation)
  • laser light (photodynamic therapy).

Doctors sometimes use it to treat very early-stage lung cancers. They also use it if the cancer is blocking an airway, to relieve breathlessness.

Newer treatments are being developed. Your cancer doctor may talk to you about taking part in research, such as a clinical trial.

If the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, you can have treatments and drugs to help relieve your symptoms. This is sometimes called supportive care (palliative care). You can see a specialist doctor or nurse for expert help with your symptoms.

Back to If you have been diagnosed with lung cancer

Just been diagnosed?

Just been diagnosed with cancer? We're here for you every step of the way. There are many ways we can help.

The cancer registry

In the UK, each country has a cancer registry. It is used to plan and improve health and care services.