Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common type of lung cancer. Similar to other types of lung cancer, the main cause of NSCLC is smoking. Your risk of developing NSCLC is also higher if you’ve been exposed to:
- secondhand smoke
NSCLC grows more slowly than small cell lung cancer (SCLC). In most instances, this makes it more treatable. Early diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy, and other treatment options can help eliminate cancers and increase the odds of survival.
How Is NSCLC Treated?
If you have NSCLC, your treatment will depend on several factors, including your current health and the stage of your cancer. Your team of doctors may choose to use more than one treatment in order to shrink tumors, attack cancer cells, and relieve your symptoms. Treatment also attempts to minimize side effects as much as possible.
Discuss all of your treatment options with your doctor and make sure you understand all of the benefits and risks. If you have questions or concerns, ask them before your treatment plan is put into action.
Surgery is often the first line of treatment, especially for patients in the early stages of NSCLC. Surgical treatment has the best odds of curing the disease. A surgeon may remove your entire lung, a lobe of one lung (lobectomy), or just a small portion of your lung. How much is removed depends on the size and extent of the tumors, as well as your overall health.
Even in cases where the cancer has spread (or metastasized) to other organs, surgery may still be beneficial. Other treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation, may be used in conjunction with surgery.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs cannot specifically target cancer cells, so they also kill healthy cells. Because of this, chemotherapy causes many side effects.
Chemotherapy drugs travel throughout the body, so they’re useful for later stage cancers in which tumors have developed in other organs. Chemotherapy is also often used before or after surgery to increase the effectiveness of the procedures and to kill any remaining cancer cells.
Radiation is often used as the main therapy for NSCLC when the patient cannot have surgery. For example, if a patient has a high surgical risk. Radiation uses high-energy rays to target and kill cancer cells. Beams of energy, usually X-rays, can be aimed directly at a tumor to shrink it.
Radiation can be used after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells. Before surgery, radiation can make a tumor smaller and more operable. Radiation can also be used for palliative care to help reduce symptoms caused by large tumors.
While chemotherapy drugs are non-specific, newly developed drugs can target cancer cells without affecting healthy cells. These new, specific drugs are most often used in cases of advanced NSCLC, sometimes along with chemotherapy.
The targeted drugs currently available, such as bevacizumab (Avastin), erlotinib (Tarceva), and ramucirumab (Cyramza), attack a protein that grows on the surface of cancer cells. This protein helps the cells to grow and divide. The drugs interrupt this process and slow the growth of tumors.
Photodynamic therapy may be used when NSCLC is still in the very early stages. This therapy involves injecting a drug that specifically accumulates in cancer cells. After enough of the drug has settled into cancer cells, a scope with a light is inserted into the lungs. The light activates the drug, which then goes to work killing the cancer cells.
This type of therapy is most successful in treating cancer that hasn’t spread outside of the lungs. It can also help to improve breathing in patients whose airways are blocked by tumors.
Clinical trials may be an option for patients in the later stages of NSCLC with poor outlooks for survival. Clinical trials study the effectiveness and safety of new treatment techniques and drugs. These developing treatments can carry serious risks, so healthy patients with a good chance of being treated in other ways are usually not allowed to take part.
The prognosis for anyone with NSCLC depends on several factors. The stage of the disease, the level of metastasis, the overall health of the patient, and the size and location of tumors can all affect prognosis.