Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted therapy are just some of the treatment options doctors may consider using for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

NSCLC makes up about 80% to 85% of lung cancers. Nine types of standard treatment are used to treat NSCLC.

Doctors consider factors such as how advanced your cancer is and your overall health to determine which treatment options are best. Read on to learn more about current options and treatments currently under development.

NSCLC that hasn’t spread beyond your lungs may be curable with treatments such as surgery alone or in combination with radiation therapy or chemotherapy. However, more than 65% of NSCLCs aren’t diagnosed until they’ve spread to surrounding tissues or distant body parts.

Cancers that have spread to distant tissues such as your brain or liver usually aren’t curable. Treatment is usually palliative, meaning that it aims to maximize your quality of life and lengthen the amount of time you survive.

Learn more about the stages of NSCLC.

Surgery is often the primary treatment for NSCLC that hasn’t spread beyond your lung. The four types of surgery doctors perform include:

  • Pneumonectomy: Your entire lung is removed.
  • Lobectomy: One lobe of your lung is removed. According to the American Cancer Society, it’s often the preferred surgery for NSCLC.
  • Wedge resection: Only a section of your lobe is removed.
  • Sleeve resection: The tumor is removed and the ends of your main airway are rejoined.

Learn more about surgery for lung cancer.

Potential side effects of surgery

Surgery can be potentially curative for early stage lung cancer but comes with some risks. Recovery usually takes weeks to months.

Side effects can include:

Chemotherapy is a drug therapy. Chemicals in chemotherapy drugs kill or slow the growth of cancer cells.

Chemotherapy is combined with surgery for people with early stage lung cancer in one or two ways.

  • Neoadjuvant therapy: Chemotherapy is administered before surgery to shrink the tumor and make it easier to remove.
  • Adjuvant therapy: Chemotherapy is administered after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells.

Chemotherapy is often used as the primary therapy for late stage lung cancer to try to shrink the tumor or control symptoms. It’s often combined with other treatments.

Learn more about chemotherapy for lung cancer.

Potential side effects of chemotherapy

Chemicals in chemotherapy drugs can damage healthy cells in your body that replicate quickly. Damage to these cells can cause side effects such as:

Radiation therapy involves using X-rays or other forms of radiation to destroy cancer cells. Radiation therapy may be:

  • External radiation therapy: A beam of radiation is aimed at the tumor from a machine outside your body.
  • Internal radiation therapy: Radioactive beads are placed inside your body near the tumor. They’re usually removed after minutes, but sometimes they’re left in permanently so they can continue to act for several weeks.

Radiation therapy is often combined with other treatments such as surgery or chemotherapy. It may be the primary treatment for some cancers, such as stage 3 NSCLC that’s invaded your chest wall.

Potential side effects of radiation therapy

Side effects of radiation therapy can include:

Targeted therapy is another type of drug therapy. Unlike chemotherapy drugs, targeted therapy medications are less harmful to normal cells and generally cause fewer side effects than radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Targeted therapy is currently used to treat late stage or relapsed NSCLC.

Learn more about targeted therapy for lung cancer.

Potential side effects of targeted therapy

Side effects vary between drugs but can include:

Immunotherapy stimulates your immune system to attack cancer cells. It’s used to treat some people with advanced NSCLC.

Learn more about immunotherapy for lung cancer.

Potential side effects of immunotherapy

Immunotherapy can sometimes lead to an autoimmune reaction where your immune system attacks healthy cells in your body.

It can also cause trigger a strong immune reaction that can cause:

Laser therapy uses a concentrated beam of light to kill cancer cells. It’s used to relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life in some people with advanced or relapsed NSCLC.

Potential side effects of laser therapy

Side effects can include:

  • bleeding
  • blood in your spit
  • metallic taste in your mouth

Cryotherapy involves freezing cancer cells to destroy them. It’s sometimes used to treat precancerous NSCLC.

Potential side effects of cryotherapy

Potential side effects include:

  • sore throat
  • pain in your chest
  • coughing up pieces of the tumor
  • coughing up blood

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) involves injecting a drug into your veins that isn’t activated until it contacts light from a laser. It’s used mainly to treat tumors on or just under your skin or in the lining of internal organs. When the tumor is in your airways, PDT is given directly to the tumor through an endoscope.

Potential side effects of photodynamic therapy

PDT usually causes minimal damage to healthy cells, but side effects can include:

  • burns
  • swelling
  • pain
  • scarring
  • cough
  • trouble swallowing

Electrocautery uses a heated probe or needle to destroy a tumor. It’s performed with a long tube called an endoscope to treat cancer growing into your airways.

Potential side effects of electrocautery

Potential side effects include:

  • sore throat
  • bleeding
  • infection
  • pain

Researchers are continuing to look at new ways to treat NSCLC. Some of the treatments under investigation include:

  • personalized drug therapies
  • new targeted therapies
  • new immunotherapy drugs
  • new combinations of already approved drugs

As of January 2023, more than 500 clinical trials for NSCLC are currently recruiting participants in the United States.

Treatment options for NSCLC largely depend on the stage of your cancer. Early stage cancer may be curable with surgery by itself or combined with other treatments such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Late stage NSCLC usually isn’t considered curable. Treatment usually aims to extend your life and minimize symptoms.