If your current treatment plan for lung cancer stops working, your doctor will likely try another approach. Palliative end-of-life care occurs when no other treatment options are possible.

Lung cancer is the third most common type of cancer in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

If you develop lung cancer, your recommended treatment plan will depend partly on your specific diagnosis and overall health. It may include one or more of the following:

  • surgery
  • radiation therapy
  • chemotherapy
  • immunotherapy
  • targeted therapy
  • supportive and palliative care

If you have early-stage lung cancer that has not spread beyond your lungs and nearby lymph nodes, your cancer specialist may recommend surgery alone or with other treatments.

If your overall health is poor or you develop advanced lung cancer that has spread to distant parts of your body, surgery may not be an option. Your specialist may recommend other treatments.

Read on to find the answers to pressing questions about lung cancer treatments.

Chemotherapy drugs kill fast-growing cells in your body, including lung cancer.

Your cancer specialist may prescribe one or more chemotherapy drugs in these cases:

  • before surgery to help shrink a tumor
  • after surgery to kill the remaining cancer cells
  • when surgery isn’t a safe or effective option

If you try a chemotherapy drug that doesn’t work well or stops working over time, your specialist may recommend a different chemotherapy drug or another treatment, such as:

Your specialist can help you learn whether these treatments are safe and effective for you.

Not all treatments work equally well for all lung cancers. Sometimes a treatment that initially works well becomes less effective over time. You may need to try multiple treatments to find an approach that works for you.

During clinic visits, your cancer specialist will ask you about your symptoms. They may order imaging or blood tests to learn how your cancer is responding to treatment.

They may recommend a change to your treatment plan if:

  • the cancer is growing or spreading
  • you develop side effects that are hard to manage
  • a new treatment option becomes available

Researchers continue developing new treatments to improve survival and quality of life in people with lung cancer. In some cases, your cancer specialists may encourage you to enroll in a clinical trial to receive experimental treatment. They can help you understand the potential benefits and risks of different treatments.

Immunotherapy medications boost your immune system’s response against cancer.

Depending on your specific diagnosis, overall health, and treatment goals, your cancer specialist may recommend immunotherapy alone or with other cancer treatments.

If you try an immunotherapy drug that doesn’t work well or stops working, your specialist may recommend a different immunotherapy drug or another treatment, such as radiation or targeted therapy.

Talk with your specialist to learn whether these treatments may be safe and effective for you.

If you have advanced lung cancer that has spread beyond your lungs and nearby lymph nodes to distant parts of your body, cancer treatments may help shrink the cancer or slow its growth for some time. But eventually, the cancer will likely stop responding to treatments.

If the cancer stops responding to available treatments, your cancer specialist will focus on supportive and palliative end-of-life care to manage symptoms and improve your quality of life.

If you have advanced lung cancer that stops responding to all treatments, it’s important to talk with your cancer specialist about your end-of-life care options and goals.

Depending on your condition and local cancer care services, you may be able to receive palliative and supportive end-of-life care:

  • at home
  • from an outpatient facility
  • in a hospital or residential hospice facility

Hospice teams provide physical, emotional, and social support to people with cancer who have stopped cancer treatments and are expected to live no more than 6 months. Hospice programs can also offer support to loved ones, including grief counseling.

It’s important to prepare advance directives and share copies of these documents with all your caregivers and doctors. These documents outline your wishes for medical treatment if you reach a point when you can no longer communicate or make decisions for yourself.

Make sure you have an up-to-date will, and let your loved ones know if you have any specific requests for your after-life care.

Clearly communicating your goals and wishes to your loved ones, caregivers, and members of your cancer care team may help you get the support you need during this challenging time.

Your outlook with lung cancer depends on many factors, including:

  • the specific type of lung cancer you have
  • whether and where the cancer has spread
  • whether you’re receiving cancer treatment
  • how you respond to cancer treatment
  • your overall health

If you develop advanced lung cancer that has spread to distant organs, it’s likely incurable.

Many people with advanced lung cancer that has spread to distant organs survive for less than a year following diagnosis. But some survive for up to 5 years or longer with treatment.

According to the American Cancer Society, the average 5-year survival rate for lung cancer that has spread to distant organs is:

  • 8% for non-small cell lung cancer
  • 3% for small-cell lung cancer

Talk with your doctor to learn more about your outlook.

Many treatments are available for lung cancer, including surgery, radiation therapy, and multiple types of cancer medication. Supportive and palliative care are also available to manage cancer symptoms and treatment side effects.

Your recommended treatment plan will depend on multiple factors, including the specific type of lung cancer you have and whether it has spread. Your cancer specialist will also consider your age and overall health, as well as your treatment goals and preferences.

If one treatment approach doesn’t work well for you, your specialist may recommend changing your treatment plan. If none of the available cancer treatments stop the growth or spread of the cancer, your specialist will focus on supportive and palliative end-of-life care.

Talk with your specialist to learn more about your treatment options and outlook.