lung cancer

Lung cancer

Lung cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world. Lung cancer is the second most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer death in the United States 1). In men, prostate cancer is more common, while in women breast cancer is more common 2). About 14% of all new cancers are lung cancers. The most important risk factor and cause for lung cancer is smoking, which results in approximately 85% of all U.S. lung cancer cases 3). The more cigarettes you smoke per day and the earlier you started smoking, the greater your risk of lung cancer. Although the prevalence of smoking has decreased, approximately 37% of U.S. adults are current or former smokers 4). The incidence of lung cancer increases with age and occurs most commonly in persons aged 55 years or older. Increasing age and cumulative exposure to tobacco smoke are the 2 most common risk factors for lung cancer. High levels of pollution, radiation and asbestos exposure may also increase risk.

Lung cancers typically start in the cells lining the bronchi and parts of the lung such as the bronchioles or alveoli. Lung cancer has a poor prognosis, and nearly 90% of persons with lung cancer die of the disease.

Estimated new cases and deaths from lung cancer (non–small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer combined) in the United States in 2017 5):

  • New cases: 222,500 (116,990 in men and 105,510 in women).
  • Deaths: 155,870 (84,590 in men and 71,280 in women).
  • Percentage of All Cancer Deaths: 25.9% 6). Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.

Lung cancer mainly occurs in older people. About 2 out of 3 people diagnosed with lung cancer are 65 or older, while less than 2% are younger than 45. The average age at the time of diagnosis is about 70 7).

The 5-year relative survival rate from 1995 to 2001 for patients with lung cancer was 15.7%. The 5-year relative survival rate for patients with local-stage (49%), regional-stage (16%), and distant-stage (2%) disease varies markedly, depending on the stage at diagnosis 8).

However, early-stage non–small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) has a better prognosis and can be treated with surgical resection.

Common symptoms of lung cancer include 9):

  • A cough that doesn’t go away and gets worse over time
  • Constant chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Shortness of breath, wheezing, or hoarseness
  • Repeated problems with pneumonia or bronchitis
  • Swelling of the neck and face
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss
  • Fatigue

Doctors diagnose lung cancer using a physical exam, imaging, and lab tests. Treatment depends on the type, stage, and how advanced it is. Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted therapy. Targeted therapy uses substances that attack cancer cells without harming normal cells.

Lifetime chance of getting lung cancer

Overall, the chance that a man will develop lung cancer in his lifetime is about 1 in 14; for a woman, the risk is about 1 in 17 10). These numbers include both smokers and non-smokers. For smokers the risk is much higher, while for non-smokers the risk is lower.

Black men are about 20% more likely to develop lung cancer than white men 11). The rate is about 10% lower in black women than in white women 12). Both black and white women have lower rates than men, but the gap is closing. The lung cancer rate has been dropping among men over the past few decades, but only for about the last decade in women 13).

Statistics on survival in people with lung cancer vary depending on the stage (extent) of the cancer when it is diagnosed. For survival statistics based on the stage of the cancer, see Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Survival Rates By Stage.

Despite the very serious prognosis (outlook) of lung cancer, some people with earlier stage cancers are cured. More than 430,000 people alive today have been diagnosed with lung cancer at some point 14).

Lung cancer screening

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force 15) makes recommendations about the effectiveness of specific preventive care services for patients without related signs or symptoms.

It bases its recommendations on the evidence of both the benefits and harms of the service and an assessment of the balance. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force does not consider the costs of providing a service in this assessment.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends annual screening for lung cancer with low-dose computed tomography (low-dose helical CT scanning) in adults aged 55 to 80 years who have a 30 pack-year smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years 16), 17). Screening should be discontinued once a person has not smoked for 15 years or develops a health problem that substantially limits life expectancy or the ability or willingness to have curative lung surgery 18).

American Cancer Society’s guidelines for lung cancer screening

The American Cancer Society has thoroughly reviewed the subject of lung cancer screening and issued guidelines that are aimed at doctors and other health care providers 19):

Patients should be asked about their smoking history. Patients who meet ALL of the following criteria may be candidates for lung cancer screening:

  • 55 to 74 years old
  • In fairly good health
  • Have at least a 30 pack-year smoking history
  • Are either still smoking or have quit smoking within the last 15 years

These criteria were based on what was used in the National Lung Screening Trial.

To get the most benefit from screening, patients need to be in good health. For example, they need to be able to have surgery and other treatments to try to cure lung cancer if it is found. Patients who need home oxygen therapy probably couldn’t withstand having part of a lung removed, and so are not candidates for screening. Patients with other serious medical problems that would shorten their lives or keep them from having surgery might not benefit enough from screening for it to be worth the risks, and so should also not be screened.

Metal implants in the chest (like pacemakers) or back (like rods in the spine) can interfere with x-rays and lead to poor quality CT images of the lungs. People with these types of implants were also kept out of the National Lung Screening Trial, and so should not be screened with CT scans for lung cancer according to the American Cancer Society guidelines.

Doctors should talk to these patients about the benefits, limitations, and potential harms of lung cancer screening. Screening should only be done at facilities that have the right type of CT scanner and that have a lot of experience using low-dose CT scans for lung cancer screening. The facility should also have a team of specialists that can provide the appropriate care and follow-up of patients with abnormal results on the scans.

If you and your doctor decide that you should be screened, you should get a low-dose CT scan every year until you reach the age of 74, as long as you are still in good health.

Lung cancer prevention

Tobacco

Prevention offers the greatest opportunity to fight lung cancer. Although decades have passed since the link between smoking and lung cancers became clear, smoking is still responsible for most lung cancer deaths. Research is continuing on:

Ways to help people quit smoking and stay tobacco-free through counseling, nicotine replacement, and other medicines
Ways to convince young people to never start smoking
Inherited differences in genes that may make some people much more likely to get lung cancer if they smoke or are exposed to someone else’s smoke

Environmental causes

Researchers also continue to look into some of the other causes of lung cancer, such as exposure to radon and diesel exhaust. Finding new ways to limit these exposures could potentially save many more lives.

Diet, nutrition, and medicines

Researchers are looking for ways to use vitamins or medicines to prevent lung cancer in people at high risk, but so far none have been shown to clearly reduce risk.

Some studies have suggested that a diet high in fruits and vegetables may offer some protection, but more research is needed to confirm this. While any protective effect of fruits and vegetables on lung cancer risk is likely to be much smaller than the increased risk from smoking, following the American Cancer Society dietary recommendations (such as staying at a healthy weight and eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) may still be helpful.

Early detection

As mentioned in lung cancer screening, screening with low dose spiral CT scans in people at high risk of lung cancer (due to smoking history) lowers the risk of death from lung cancer, when compared to chest x-rays.

Another approach now being studied uses newer, sensitive tests to look for cancer cells in sputum samples 20). Researchers have found several changes often seen in the DNA of lung cancer cells. Studies are looking at tests that can spot these DNA changes to see if they can find lung cancers at an earlier stage.

Types of lung cancer

There are three main types of lung cancer 21). Knowing which type you have is important because it affects your treatment options and your outlook (prognosis). If you aren’t sure which type of lung cancer you have, ask your doctor so you can get the right information.

  1. Non small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)
  2. Small cell lung cancer and
  3. Lung carcinoid tumor.

There are 2 main types of lung cancer:

  • About 80% to 85% of lung cancers are non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)
  • About 10% to 15% are small cell lung cancer (SCLC)

These types of lung cancer are treated very differently.

Along with the 2 main types of lung cancer (non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer), other tumors can occur in the lungs.

Lung carcinoid tumors: Carcinoid tumors of the lung account for fewer than 5% of lung tumors. Most of these grow slowly. For more information about these tumors, see Lung Carcinoid Tumor.

Other lung tumors: Other types of lung cancer such as adenoid cystic carcinomas, lymphomas, and sarcomas, as well as benign lung tumors such as hamartomas are rare. These are treated differently from the more common lung cancers.

Cancers that spread to the lungs: Cancers that start in other organs (such as the breast, pancreas, kidney, or skin) can sometimes spread (metastasize) to the lungs, but these are not lung cancers. For example, cancer that starts in the breast and spreads to the lungs is still breast cancer, not lung cancer. Treatment for metastatic cancer to the lungs is based on where it started (the primary cancer site).

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is any type of epithelial lung cancer other than small cell lung cancer (SCLC). Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common type of lung cancer 22). Squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, and large cell carcinoma are all subtypes of non-small cell lung cancer, but there are several other types that occur less frequently and all types can occur in unusual histologic variants. Although non-small cell lung cancers are associated with cigarette smoke, adenocarcinomas may be found in patients who have never smoked 23). As a class, non-small cell lung cancers are relatively insensitive to chemotherapy and radiation therapy compared with small cell lung cancer. Patients with resectable disease may be cured by surgery or surgery followed by chemotherapy. Local control can be achieved with radiation therapy in a large number of patients with unresectable disease, but cure is seen only in a small number of patients. Patients with locally advanced unresectable disease may achieve long-term survival with radiation therapy combined with chemotherapy. Patients with advanced metastatic disease may achieve improved survival and palliation of symptoms with chemotherapy, targeted agents, and other supportive measures..

If you have non-small cell lung cancer or are close to someone who does, knowing what to expect can help you cope. Here you can find out all about non-small cell lung cancer, including risk factors, symptoms, how it is found, and how it is treated.

Anatomy of the respiratory system

Non-small cell lung cancer arises from the epithelial cells of the lung of the central bronchi to terminal alveoli. The histological type of non-small cell lung cancer correlates with site of origin, reflecting the variation in respiratory tract epithelium of the bronchi to alveoli. Squamous cell carcinoma usually starts near a central bronchus. Adenocarcinoma and bronchioloalveolar carcinoma usually originate in peripheral lung tissue.

Figure 1. Bronchial tree of the lungs

trachea-bronchus-lungs

Figure 2. Lungs alveoli

lungs alveoli

Figure 3. Pulmonary Alveoli (microscopic view)

lungs alveoli

Types of non-small cell lung cancer

There are subtypes of non-small cell lung cancer, which start from different types of lung cells. But they are grouped together as non-small cell lung cancer because the approach to treatment and prognosis (outlook) are often similar.

Adenocarcinoma

About 40% of lung cancers are adenocarcinomas. These cancers start in early versions of the cells that would normally secrete substances such as mucus.

This type of lung cancer occurs mainly in current or former smokers, but it is also the most common type of lung cancer seen in non-smokers. It is more common in women than in men, and it is more likely to occur in younger people than other types of lung cancer.

Adenocarcinoma is usually found in outer parts of the lung. Though it tends to grow slower than other types of lung cancer and is more likely to be found before it has spread, this varies from patient to patient.

People with a type of adenocarcinoma called adenocarcinoma in situ (previously called bronchioloalveolar carcinoma) tend to have a better outlook than those with other types of lung cancer.

Squamous cell (epidermoid) carcinoma

About 25% to 30% of all lung cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. These cancers start in early versions of squamous cells, which are flat cells that line the inside of the airways in the lungs. They are often linked to a history of smoking and tend to be found in the central part of the lungs, near a main airway (bronchus).

Large cell (undifferentiated) carcinoma: This type accounts for about 10% to 15% of lung cancers. It can appear in any part of the lung. It tends to grow and spread quickly, which can make it harder to treat. A subtype of large cell carcinoma, known as large cell neuroendocrine carcinoma, is a fast-growing cancer that is very similar to small cell lung cancer.

Other subtypes: A few other subtypes of non-small cell lung cancer, such as adenosquamous carcinoma and sarcomatoid carcinoma, are much less common.

Histopathology of non-small cell lung cancer

Non-small cell lung cancer is a heterogeneous aggregate of histologies. The most common histologies include the following:

  • Epidermoid or squamous cell carcinoma.
  • Adenocarcinoma.
  • Large cell carcinoma.

These histologies are often classified together because approaches to diagnosis, staging, prognosis, and treatment are similar.

Causes of non-small cell lung cancer

Smoking-related lung carcinogenesis is a multistep process. Squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma have defined premalignant precursor lesions. Before becoming invasive, lung epithelium may undergo morphological changes that include the following:

  • Hyperplasia: the enlargement of an organ or tissue caused by an increase in the reproduction rate of its cells, as an initial stage in the development of cancer.
  • Metaplasia: abnormal change in the nature of a tissue.
  • Dysplasia: the abnormal growth or development of cells of a tissue or organ.
  • Carcinoma in situ: is a group of abnormal cells that are found only in the place where they first formed in the body.

Dysplasia and carcinoma in situ are considered the principal premalignant lesions because they are more likely to progress to invasive cancer and less likely to spontaneously regress.

In addition, after resection of a lung cancer, there is a 1% to 2% risk per patient per year that a second lung cancer will occur 24).

Risk Factors for non-small cell lung cancer

Increasing age is the most important risk factor for most cancers. Other risk factors for lung cancer include:

  • Current or history of tobacco use: cigarettes, pipes, and cigars 25).
  • Exposure to cancer-causing substances in secondhand smoke 26), 27).
  • Occupational exposure to asbestos, arsenic, chromium, beryllium, nickel, and other agents 28).
  • Radiation exposure from any of the following:
    + Radiation therapy to the breast or chest 29).
    + Radon exposure in the home or workplace 30).
    + Medical imaging tests, such as computed tomography (CT) scans 31).
    + Atomic bomb radiation 32).
  • Living in an area with air pollution 33), 34), 35).
  • Family history of lung cancer 36).
  • Human immunodeficiency virus infection (HIV) 37).
  • Beta carotene supplements in heavy smokers 38), 39).

The single most important risk factor for the development of lung cancer is smoking. For smokers, the risk for lung cancer is on average tenfold higher than in lifetime nonsmokers (defined as a person who has smoked <100 cigarettes in his or her lifetime). The risk increases with the quantity of cigarettes, duration of smoking, and starting age.

Smoking cessation results in a decrease in precancerous lesions and a reduction in the risk of developing lung cancer. Former smokers continue to have an elevated risk for lung cancer for years after quitting. Asbestos exposure may exert a synergistic effect of cigarette smoking on the lung cancer risk 40).

Prevention of lung cancer

A significant number of patients cured of their smoking-related lung cancer may develop a second malignancy. In the Lung Cancer Study Group trial of 907 patients with stage T1, N0 resected tumors, the rate was 1.8% per year for nonpulmonary second cancers and 1.6% per year for new lung cancers 41). Other studies have reported even higher risks of second tumors in long-term survivors, including rates of 10% for second lung cancers and 20% for all second cancers 42).

Because of the persistent risk of developing second lung cancers in former smokers, various chemoprevention strategies have been evaluated in randomized control trials. None of the phase III trials with the agents beta carotene, retinol, 13-cis-retinoic acid, [alpha]-tocopherol, N-acetylcysteine, or acetylsalicylic acid has demonstrated beneficial, reproducible results 43), 44), 45), 46), 47). Chemoprevention of second primary cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract is undergoing clinical evaluation in patients with early-stage lung cancer.

Can Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Be Found Early ?

Usually symptoms of lung cancer do not appear until the disease is already at an advanced stage 48). Even when lung cancer does cause symptoms, many people may mistake them for other problems, such as an infection or long-term effects from smoking. This may delay the diagnosis.

Some lung cancers are found early by accident as a result of tests for other medical conditions. For example, lung cancer may be found by tests done for other reasons in people with heart disease, pneumonia, or other lung conditions. A small portion of these people do very well and may be cured of lung cancer.

Screening is the use of tests or exams to find a disease in people who don’t have symptoms. Doctors have looked for many years for a good screening test for lung cancer, but only in recent years has a study shown that a test known as a low-dose CT (low dose helical CT) scan can help lower the risk of dying from this disease.

The National Lung Screening Trial was a large clinical trial that looked at using low-dose CT (low dose helical CT) of the chest to screen for lung cancer. CT scans of the chest provide more detailed pictures than chest x-rays and are better at finding small abnormal areas in the lungs. Low-dose CT of the chest uses lower amounts of radiation than a standard chest CT and does not require the use of intravenous (IV) contrast dye.

The National Lung Screening Trial compared low-dose CT of the chest to chest x-rays in people at high risk of lung cancer to see if these scans could help lower the risk of dying from lung cancer. The study included more than 50,000 people ages 55 to 74 who were current or former smokers and were in fairly good health. To be in the study, they had to have at least a 30 pack-year history of smoking.

A pack-year is the number of cigarette packs smoked each day multiplied by the number of years a person has smoked. Someone who smoked a pack of cigarettes per day for 30 years has a 30 pack-year smoking history, as does someone who smoked 2 packs a day for 15 years.

Former smokers could enter the study if they had quit within the past 15 years. The study did not include people if they had a history of lung cancer or lung cancer symptoms, if they had part of a lung removed, if they needed to be on oxygen at home to help them breathe, or if they had other serious medical problems.

People in the study got either 3 low-dose CT scans or 3 chest x-rays, each a year apart, to look for abnormal areas in the lungs that might be cancer. After several years, the study found that people who got low-dose CT had a 20% lower chance of dying from lung cancer than those who got chest x-rays. They were also 7% less likely to die overall (from any cause) than those who got chest x-rays.

Screening with low-dose CT scan was also shown to have some downsides that need to be considered. One drawback of this test is that it also finds a lot of abnormalities that have to be checked out with more tests, but that turn out not to be cancer. About 1 out of 4 people in the National Lung Screening Trial had such a finding. This may lead to additional tests such as other CT scans or more invasive tests such as needle biopsies or even surgery to remove a portion of lung in some people. These tests can sometimes lead to complications (like a collapsed lung) or rarely, death, even in people who do not have cancer (or who have very early stage cancer).

Low-dose CT scans also expose people to a small amount of radiation with each test. It is less than the dose from a standard CT, but it is more than the dose from a chest x-ray. Some people who are screened may end up needing further CT scans, which means more radiation exposure. When done in tens of thousands of people, this radiation may cause a few people to develop breast, lung, or thyroid cancers later on.

The National Lung Screening Trial was a large study, but it left some questions that still need to be answered. For example, it’s not clear if screening with low-dose CT scans would have the same effect if different people were allowed in the study, such as those who smoke less (or not at all), or people younger than age 55 or older than 74. Also, in the National Lung Screening Trial, patients got 3 scans over 2 years. It’s not yet clear what the effect would be if people were screened for longer than 2 years.

These factors, and others, need to be taken into account by people and their doctors who are considering whether or not screening with low-dose CT scans is right for them.

Non-small cell lung cancer symptoms and signs

Most lung cancers do not cause any symptoms until they have spread, but some people with early lung cancer do have symptoms 49).

Lung cancer may present with symptoms or be found incidentally on chest imaging. Symptoms and signs may result from the location of the primary local invasion or compression of adjacent thoracic structures, distant metastases, or paraneoplastic phenomena.

The most common symptoms of lung cancer are 50):

  • A cough that does not go away or gets worse
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored sputum (spit or phlegm)
  • Chest pain that is often worse with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that don’t go away or keep coming back
  • New onset of wheezing.

Symptoms may result from local invasion or compression of adjacent thoracic structures such as compression involving the esophagus causing dysphagia, compression involving the laryngeal nerves causing hoarseness, or compression involving the superior vena cava causing facial edema and distension of the superficial veins of the head and neck. Symptoms from distant metastases may also be present and include neurological defect or personality change from brain metastases or pain from bone metastases. Infrequently, patients may present with symptoms and signs of paraneoplastic diseases such as hypertrophic osteoarthropathy with digital clubbing or hypercalcemia from parathyroid hormone-related protein. Physical examination may identify enlarged supraclavicular lymphadenopathy, pleural effusion or lobar collapse, unresolved pneumonia, or signs of associated disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or pulmonary fibrosis.

When lung cancer spreads to distant organs, it may cause:

  • Bone pain (like pain in the back or hips)
  • Nervous system changes (such as headache, weakness or numbness of an arm or leg, dizziness, balance problems, or seizures), from cancer spread to the brain or spinal cord
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), from cancer spread to the liver
  • Lumps near the surface of the body, due to cancer spreading to the skin or to lymph nodes (collections of immune system cells), such as those in the neck or above the collarbone

Most of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by something other than lung cancer. Still, if you have any of these problems, it’s important to see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.

Some lung cancers can cause syndromes, which are groups of very specific symptoms.

Horner syndrome

Cancers of the top part of the lungs (sometimes called Pancoast tumors) sometimes can affect certain nerves to the eye and part of the face, causing a group of symptoms called Horner syndrome:

  • Drooping or weakness of one eyelid
  • A smaller pupil (dark part in the center of the eye) in the same eye
  • Reduced or absent sweating on the same side of the face

Pancoast tumors can also sometimes cause severe shoulder pain.

Superior vena cava syndrome

The superior vena cava (SVC) is a large vein that carries blood from the head and arms back to the heart. It passes next to the upper part of the right lung and the lymph nodes inside the chest. Tumors in this area can press on the superior vena cava, which can cause the blood to back up in the veins. This can lead to swelling in the face, neck, arms, and upper chest (sometimes with a bluish-red skin color). It can also cause headaches, dizziness, and a change in consciousness if it affects the brain. While superior vena cava syndrome can develop gradually over time, in some cases it can become life-threatening, and needs to be treated right away.

Paraneoplastic syndromes

Some lung cancers can make hormone-like substances that enter the bloodstream and cause problems with distant tissues and organs, even though the cancer has not spread to those tissues or organs. These problems are called paraneoplastic syndromes. Sometimes these syndromes can be the first symptoms of lung cancer. Because the symptoms affect organs besides the lungs, patients and their doctors may suspect at first that a disease other than lung cancer is causing them.

Some of the more common paraneoplastic syndromes that can be caused by non-small cell lung cancer include:

  • High blood calcium levels (hypercalcemia), which can cause frequent urination, thirst, constipation, nausea, vomiting, belly pain, weakness, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, and other nervous system problems
  • Excess growth/thickening of certain bones, especially those in the finger tips, which is often painful
  • Blood clots
  • Excess breast growth in men (gynecomastia)

Again, many of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by something other than lung cancer. Still, if you have any of these problems, it’s important to see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.

Non-small cell lung cancer diagnosis

Investigations of patients with suspected non-small cell lung cancer focus on confirming the diagnosis and determining the extent of the disease. Treatment options for patients are determined by histology, stage, and general health and comorbidities of the patient.

The procedures used to determine the presence of cancer include the following:

  • History.
  • Physical examination.
  • Routine laboratory evaluations.
  • Chest x-ray.
  • Chest CT scan with infusion of contrast material.
  • Biopsy.

Before a patient begins lung cancer treatment, an experienced lung cancer pathologist must review the pathologic material. This is critical because small cell lung cancer (SCLC), which responds well to chemotherapy and is generally not treated surgically, can be confused on microscopic examination with non-small cell lung cancer 51). Immunohistochemistry and electron microscopy are invaluable techniques for diagnosis and subclassification, but most lung tumors can be classified by light microscopic criteria.

Imaging tests

Imaging tests use x-rays, magnetic fields, sound waves, or radioactive substances to create pictures of the inside of your body. Imaging tests may be done for a number of reasons both before and after a diagnosis of lung cancer, including:

  • To look at suspicious areas that might be cancer
  • To learn how far cancer may have spread
  • To help determine if treatment is working
  • To look for possible signs of cancer coming back after treatment

Chest x-ray

This is often the first test your doctor will do to look for any abnormal areas in the lungs. Plain x-rays of your chest can be done at imaging centers, hospitals, and even in some doctors’ offices. If something suspicious is seen, your doctor may order more tests.

Computed tomography (CT) scan

A CT scan uses x-rays to make detailed cross-sectional images of your body. Instead of taking one picture, like a regular x-ray, a CT scanner takes many pictures as it rotates around you while you lie on a table. A computer then combines these pictures into images of slices of the part of your body being studied.

A CT scan is more likely to show lung tumors than routine chest x-rays. It can also show the size, shape, and position of any lung tumors and can help find enlarged lymph nodes that might contain cancer that has spread from the lung. This test can also be used to look for masses in the adrenal glands, liver, brain, and other internal organs that might be due to the spread of lung cancer.

CT-guided needle biopsy: If a suspected area of cancer is deep within your body, a CT scan can be used to guide a biopsy needle into the suspected area.

Real-time tumor imaging

Researchers are looking to use new imaging techniques, such as four-dimensional computed tomography (4DCT), to help improve treatment. In this technique, the CT machine scans the chest continuously for about 30 seconds. It shows where the tumor is in relation to other structures as a person breathes, as opposed to just giving a ‘snapshot’ of a point in time, like a standard CT does.

Four-dimensional computed tomography (4DCT) can be used to determine exactly where the tumor is during each part of the breathing cycle, which can help doctors deliver radiation to a tumor more precisely. This technique might also be used to help show if a tumor is attached to or invading important structures in the chest, which could help doctors determine if a patient might be eligible for surgery.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan

Like CT scans, MRI scans provide detailed images of soft tissues. But MRI scans use radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays. A contrast material called gadolinium is often injected into a vein before the scan to better see details.

MRI scans are most often used to look for possible spread of lung cancer to the brain or spinal cord. Rarely, MRI of the chest may be done to see if the cancer has grown into central structures in the chest.

Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

For this test, a form of radioactive sugar (known as FDG) is injected into the blood. Because cancer cells in the body are growing quickly, they absorb more of the radioactive sugar. This radioactivity can be seen with a special camera.

PET/CT scan: Often a PET scan is combined with a CT scan using a special machine that can do both at the same time. This lets the doctor compare areas of higher radioactivity on the PET scan with the more detailed appearance of that area on the CT scan. This is the type of PET scan most often used in patients with lung cancer.

If you appear to have early stage lung cancer, your doctor can use this test to help see if the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes or other areas, which can help determine if surgery may be an option for you. This test can also be helpful in getting a better idea if an abnormal area on another imaging test might be cancer.

PET/CT scans can also be useful if your doctor thinks the cancer might have spread but doesn’t know where. They can show spread of cancer to the liver, bones, adrenal glands, or some other organs. They are not as useful for looking at the brain, since all brain cells use a lot of glucose.

PET/CT scans are often helpful in diagnosing lung cancer, but their role in checking whether treatment is working is unproven. Most doctors do not recommend PET/CT scans for routine follow up of patients with lung cancer after treatment.

Bone scan

For this test, a small amount of low-level radioactive material is injected into the blood. The substance settles in areas of bone changes throughout the entire skeleton. This radioactivity can be seen with a special camera.

A bone scan can help show if a cancer has spread to the bones. But this test isn’t needed very often because PET scans, which are often done in patients with non-small cell lung cancer, can usually show if cancer has spread to the bones. Bone scans are done mainly when there is reason to think the cancer may have spread to the bones (because of symptoms such as bone pain) and other test results aren’t clear.

Tests for diagnosing lung cancer

Symptoms and the results of certain tests may strongly suggest that a person has lung cancer, but the actual diagnosis is made by looking at lung cells with a microscope.

The cells can be taken from lung secretions (sputum or phlegm), fluid removed from the area around the lung (thoracentesis), or from a suspicious area using a needle or surgery (known as a biopsy). The choice of which test(s) to use depends on the situation.

Sputum cytology

A sample of mucus you cough up from the lungs (sputum) is looked at under a microscope to see if it has cancer cells. The best way to do this is to get early morning samples from you 3 days in a row. This test is more likely to help find cancers that start in the major airways of the lung, such as squamous cell lung cancers. It may not be as helpful for finding other types of non-small cell lung cancer. If your doctor suspects lung cancer, further testing will be done even if no cancer cells are found in the sputum.

Thoracentesis

If there is a buildup of fluid around the lungs (called a pleural effusion), doctors can perform thoracentesis to find out if it is caused by cancer spreading to the lining of the lungs (pleura). The buildup might also be caused by other conditions, such as heart failure or an infection.

For this procedure, the skin is numbed and a hollow needle is inserted between the ribs to drain the fluid. (In a similar test called pericardiocentesis, fluid is removed from within the sac around the heart.) The fluid is checked under a microscope for cancer cells. Chemical tests of the fluid are also sometimes useful in telling a malignant (cancerous) pleural effusion from one that is not.

If a malignant pleural effusion has been diagnosed, thoracentesis may be repeated to remove more fluid. Fluid buildup can keep the lungs from filling with air, so thoracentesis can help a person breathe better.

Needle biopsy

Doctors can often use a hollow needle to get a small sample from a suspicious area (mass).

In a fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy, the doctor uses a syringe with a very thin, hollow needle to withdraw (aspirate) cells and small fragments of tissue.
In a core biopsy, a larger needle is used to remove one or more small cores of tissue. Samples from core biopsies are larger than fine needle aspiration biopsies, so they are often preferred.

An advantage of needle biopsies is that they don’t require a surgical incision. The drawback is that they remove only a small amount of tissue. In some cases (particularly with fine needle aspiration biopsies), the amount removed might not be enough to both make a diagnosis and to classify DNA changes in the cancer cells that can help doctors choose anticancer drugs.

Transthoracic needle biopsy: If the suspected tumor is in the outer part of the lungs, the biopsy needle can be inserted through the skin on the chest wall. The area where the needle is to be inserted may be numbed with local anesthesia first. The doctor then guides the needle into the area while looking at the lungs with either fluoroscopy (which is like an x-ray, but creates a moving image on a screen rather than a single picture on film) or CT scans.

If CT is used, the needle is inserted toward the mass (tumor), a CT image is taken, and the direction of the needle is guided based on the image. This is repeated a few times until the needle is within the mass.

A possible complication of this procedure is that air may leak out of the lung at the biopsy site and into the space between the lung and the chest wall. This is called a pneumothorax. It can cause part of the lung to collapse and possibly trouble breathing. If the air leak is small, it often gets better without any treatment. Large air leaks are treated by putting a small tube into the chest space and sucking out the air over a day or two, after which it usually heals on its own.

Other approaches to needle biopsies: An fine needle aspiration biopsy may also be done to check for cancer in the lymph nodes between the lungs:

Transtracheal fine needle aspiration or transbronchial fine needle aspiration is done by passing the needle through the wall of the trachea (windpipe) or bronchi (the large airways leading into the lungs) during bronchoscopy or endobronchial ultrasound (described below).

In some patients an fine needle aspiration biopsy is done during endoscopic esophageal ultrasound (described below) by passing the needle through the wall of the esophagus.

Bronchoscopy

Bronchoscopy can help the doctor find some tumors or blockages in the larger airways of the lungs, which can often be biopsied during the procedure.

For this exam, a lighted, flexible fiber-optic tube (called a bronchoscope) is passed through the mouth or nose and down into the windpipe and bronchi. The mouth and throat are sprayed first with a numbing medicine. You may also be given medicine through an intravenous (IV) line to make you feel relaxed.

Small instruments can be passed down the bronchoscope to take biopsy samples. The doctor can also sample cells from the lining of the airways with a small brush (bronchial brushing) or by rinsing the airways with sterile saltwater (bronchial washing). These tissue and cell samples are then looked at under a microscope.

Tests to find lung cancer spread in the chest

If lung cancer has been found, it’s often important to know if it has spread to the lymph nodes in the space between the lungs (mediastinum) or other nearby areas. This can affect a person’s treatment options. Several types of tests can be used to look for this cancer spread.

Endobronchial ultrasound

Ultrasound is a type of imaging test that uses sound waves to create pictures of the inside of your body. For this test, a small, microphone-like instrument called a transducer gives off sound waves and picks up the echoes as they bounce off body tissues. The echoes are converted by a computer into an image on a computer screen.

For endobronchial ultrasound, a bronchoscope is fitted with an ultrasound transducer at its tip and is passed down into the windpipe. This is done with numbing medicine (local anesthesia) and light sedation.

The transducer can be pointed in different directions to look at lymph nodes and other structures in the mediastinum (the area between the lungs). If suspicious areas such as enlarged lymph nodes are seen on the ultrasound, a hollow needle can be passed through the bronchoscope and guided into these areas to obtain a biopsy. The samples are then sent to a lab to be looked at under a microscope.

Endoscopic esophageal ultrasound

This test is like endobronchial ultrasound, except the doctor passes an endoscope (a lighted, flexible scope) down the throat and into the esophagus (the tube connecting the throat to the stomach). This is done with numbing medicine (local anesthesia) and light sedation.

The esophagus is just behind the windpipe and is close to some lymph nodes inside the chest to which lung cancer may spread. As with endobronchial ultrasound, the transducer can be pointed in different directions to look at lymph nodes and other structures inside the chest that might contain lung cancer. If enlarged lymph nodes are seen on the ultrasound, a hollow needle can be passed through the endoscope to get biopsy samples of them. The samples are then sent to a lab to be looked at under a microscope.

Mediastinoscopy and mediastinotomy

These procedures may be done to look more directly at and get samples from the structures in the mediastinum (the area between the lungs). They are done in an operating room by a surgeon while you are under general anesthesia (in a deep sleep). The main difference between the two is in the location and size of the incision.

  • Mediastinoscopy: A small cut is made in the front of the neck and a thin, hollow, lighted tube is inserted behind the sternum (breast bone) and in front of the windpipe to look at the area. Instruments can be passed through this tube to take tissue samples from the lymph nodes along the windpipe and the major bronchial tube areas. Looking at the samples under a microscope can show if they have cancer cells.
  • Mediastinotomy: The surgeon makes a slightly larger incision (usually about 2 inches long) between the left second and third ribs next to the breast bone. This lets the surgeon reach some lymph nodes that can’t be reached by mediastinoscopy.

Thoracoscopy

Thoracoscopy can be done to find out if cancer has spread to the spaces between the lungs and the chest wall, or to the linings of these spaces. It can also be used to sample tumors on the outer parts of the lungs as well as nearby lymph nodes and fluid, and to assess whether a tumor is growing into nearby tissues or organs. This procedure is not often done just to diagnose lung cancer, unless other tests such as needle biopsies are unable to get enough samples for the diagnosis.

Thoracoscopy is done in the operating room while you are under general anesthesia (in a deep sleep). A small cut (incision) is made in the side of the chest wall. (Sometimes more than one cut is made.) The doctor then puts a thin, lighted tube with a small video camera on the end through the incision to view the space between the lungs and the chest wall. Using this, the doctor can see possible cancer deposits on the lining of the lung or chest wall and remove small pieces of tissue for examination. When certain areas can’t be reached with thoracoscopy, the surgeon may need to make a larger incision in the chest wall, known as a thoracotomy.

Thoracoscopy can also be used as part of the treatment to remove part of a lung in some early-stage lung cancers. This type of operation, known as video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS), is described below.

Lab tests of biopsy and other samples

Samples that have been collected during biopsies or other tests are sent to a pathology lab. A pathologist, a doctor who uses lab tests to diagnose diseases such as cancer, will look at the samples with a microscope and may do other special tests to help better classify the cancer. Cancers from other organs can spread to the lungs. It’s very important to find out where the cancer started, because treatment is different depending on the type of cancer.

The results of these tests are described in a pathology report, which is usually available within about a week. If you have any questions about your pathology results or any diagnostic tests, talk to your doctor. If needed, you can get a second opinion of your pathology report by having your tissue samples sent to a pathologist at another lab.

Immunohistochemical tests

For this test, very thin slices of the samples are attached to glass microscope slides. The samples are then treated with special proteins (antibodies) that attach only to a specific substance found in certain cancer cells. If the cancer cells have that substance, the antibody will attach to the cells. Chemicals are then added so that antibodies change color. The doctor who looks at the sample under a microscope can see this color change.

Molecular tests

In some cases, doctors may look for specific gene changes in the cancer cells that could mean certain targeted drugs might help treat the cancer. For example:

The epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is a protein that sometimes appears in high amounts on the surface of cancer cells and helps them grow. Some drugs that target EGFR seem to work best against lung cancers with certain changes in the EGFR gene, which are more common in certain groups, such as non-smokers, women, and Asians. But these drugs don’t seem to be as helpful in patients whose cancer cells have changes in the KRAS gene. Many doctors now test for changes in genes such as EGFR and KRAS to determine if these newer treatments are likely to be helpful.

About 5% of non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLCs) have a change in a gene called ALK. This change is most often seen in non-smokers (or light smokers) who have the adenocarcinoma subtype of non-small cell lung cancer. Doctors may test cancers for changes in the ALK gene to see if drugs that target this change may help them.

About 1% to 2% of non-small cell lung cancers have a rearrangement in the ROS1 gene, which might make the tumor respond to certain targeted drugs. A similar percentage have a rearrangement in the RET gene. Certain drugs that target cells with RET gene changes might be options for treating these tumors.
Some non-small cell lung cancers have changes in the BRAF gene. Certain drugs that target cells with BRAF gene changes might be option for treating these tumors.

Newer lab tests for certain other genes or proteins may also help guide the choice of treatment.

Blood tests

Blood tests are not used to diagnose lung cancer, but they can help to get a sense of a person’s overall health. For example, they can be used to help determine if a person is healthy enough to have surgery.

A complete blood count (CBC) looks at whether your blood has normal numbers of different types of blood cells. For example, it can show if you are anemic (have a low number of red blood cells), if you could have trouble with bleeding (due to a low number of blood platelets), or if you are at increased risk for infections (because of a low number of white blood cells). This test will be repeated regularly if you are treated with chemotherapy, because these drugs can affect blood-forming cells of the bone marrow.

Blood chemistry tests can help spot abnormalities in some of your organs, such as the liver or kidneys. For example, if cancer has spread to the liver and bones, it may cause abnormal levels of certain chemicals in the blood, such as a high level of lactate dehydrogenase (LDH).

Pulmonary function tests

Pulmonary function tests are often done after lung cancer is diagnosed to see how well your lungs are working (for example, how much emphysema or chronic bronchitis is present). This is especially important if surgery might be an option in treating the cancer. Surgery to remove lung cancer may mean removing part or all of a lung, so it’s important to know how well the lungs are working beforehand. Some people with poor lung function (like those with lung damage from smoking) don’t have enough lung reserve to withstand removing even part of a lung. These tests can give the surgeon an idea of whether surgery is a good option, and if so, how much lung can safely be removed.

There are different types of pulmonary function tests, but they all basically have you breathe in and out through a tube that is connected to a machine that measures airflow.

Sometimes pulmonary function tests are coupled with a test called an arterial blood gas. In this test, blood is removed from an artery (instead of from a vein, like most other blood tests) to measure the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide that it contains.

Fluorescence bronchoscopy

Also known as autofluorescence bronchoscopy, this technique might help doctors find some lung cancers earlier, when they are likely to be easier to treat. For this test, the doctor inserts a bronchoscope through the mouth or nose and into the lungs. The end of the bronchoscope has a special fluorescent light on it, instead of a normal (white) light.

The fluorescent light causes abnormal areas in the airways to show up in a different color than healthy parts of the airway. Some of these areas might not be visible under white light, so the color difference can help doctors find these areas sooner. Some cancer centers now use this technique to look for early lung cancers, especially if there are no obvious tumors seen with normal bronchoscopy.

Virtual bronchoscopy

This imaging test uses a chest CT scan to create a detailed 3-dimensional picture of the airways in the lungs. The images can be viewed as if the doctor were actually using a bronchoscope.

Virtual bronchoscopy has some possible advantages over standard bronchoscopy. First, it is non-invasive and doesn’t require anesthesia. It also helps doctors view some airways that they might not able to get to with standard bronchoscopy, such as those being blocked by a tumor. But this test has some drawbacks as well. For example, it doesn’t show color changes in the airways that might indicate a problem. It also doesn’t let a doctor take samples of suspicious areas like bronchoscopy does. Still, it can be a useful tool in some situations, such as in people who might be too sick to get a standard bronchoscopy.

This test will probably become more available as the technology improves.

Electromagnetic navigation bronchoscopy

Lung tumors near the center of the chest can be biopsied during bronchoscopy, but bronchoscopes have trouble reaching the outer parts of the lungs, so tumors in these areas often need to be biopsied using a needle passed through the skin.

This newer approach can help a doctor use a bronchoscope to biopsy a tumor in the outer part of the lung. First, CT scans are used to create a virtual bronchoscopy. The abnormal area is identified, and a computer helps guide a bronchoscope to the area so that it can be biopsied. The bronchoscope used has some special attachments that allow it to reach further than a regular bronchoscope.

This takes special equipment and training, and it is not widely available at this time.

Molecular Features

The identification of mutations in lung cancer has led to the development of molecularly targeted therapy to improve the survival of subsets of patients with metastatic disease 52). In particular, subsets of adenocarcinoma now can be defined by specific mutations in genes encoding components of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and downstream mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPK) and phosphatidylinositol 3-kinases (PI3K) signaling pathways. These mutations may define mechanisms of drug sensitivity and primary or acquired resistance to kinase inhibitors.

Other genetic abnormalities of potential relevance to treatment decisions include translocations involving the anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK)-tyrosine kinase receptor, which are sensitive to ALK inhibitors, and amplification of MET (mesenchymal epithelial transition factor), which encodes the hepatocyte growth factor receptor. MET amplification has been associated with secondary resistance to EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitors.

Prognostic Factors

Multiple studies have attempted to identify the prognostic importance of a variety of clinicopathologic factors 53), 54), 55).

Factors that have correlated with adverse prognosis include the following:

  • Presence of pulmonary symptoms.
  • Large tumor size (>3 cm).
  • Nonsquamous histology.
  • Metastases to multiple lymph nodes within a TNM-defined nodal station 56).
  • Vascular invasion 57).

For patients with inoperable disease, prognosis is adversely affected by poor performance status and weight loss of more than 10%.

In multiple retrospective analyses of clinical trial data, advanced age alone has not been shown to influence response or survival with therapy 58).

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Stages

The stage of a cancer describes how far it has spread. Your treatment and prognosis (outlook) depend, to a large extent, on the cancer’s stage.

There are actually 2 types of staging descriptions for non-small cell lung cancer 59):

  • The clinical stage is based on the results of physical exams, biopsies, imaging tests (CT scan, chest x-ray, PET scan, etc.), and other tests.
  • If you have surgery, your doctor can also determine the pathologic stage, which is based on the same factors as the clinical stage, plus what is found as a result of the surgery.

The clinical and pathologic stages might be different in some cases. For example, during surgery the doctor may find cancer in an area that did not show up on imaging tests, which might give the cancer a more advanced pathologic stage.

Because many people with non-small cell lung cancer do not have surgery, the clinical stage is often used when describing the extent of this cancer. But when it is available, the pathologic stage is likely to be more accurate than the clinical stage, as it uses the additional information obtained at surgery.

Understanding the stage of your non-small cell lung cancer

The system used most often to stage non-small cell lung cancer is the American Joint Committee on Cancer TNM system, which is based on:

  • The size of the main (primary) tumor (T) and whether it has grown into nearby areas.
  • Whether the cancer has spread to nearby (regional) lymph nodes (N). Lymph nodes are small bean-shaped collections of immune system cells to which cancers often spread before going to other parts of the body.
  • Whether the cancer has spread (metastasized; M) to other organs of the body. The most common sites are the brain, bones, adrenal glands, liver, kidneys, and the other lung.

Numbers or letters appear after T, N, and M to provide more details about each of these factors. Higher numbers mean the cancer is more advanced. Once the T, N, and M categories have been determined, this information is combined in a process called stage grouping, and an overall stage is assigned.

Details of the TNM staging system

The TNM staging system is complex and can be hard for patients (and even some doctors) to understand. If you have any questions about the stage of your cancer, ask your doctor to explain it to you.

T categories for lung cancer

TX: The main (primary) tumor can’t be assessed, or cancer cells were seen on sputum cytology or bronchial washing but no tumor can be found.

T0: There is no evidence of a primary tumor.

Tis: The cancer is found only in the top layers of cells lining the air passages. It has not invaded into deeper lung tissues. This is also known as carcinoma in situ.

T1: The tumor is no larger than 3 centimeters (cm)—slightly less than 1¼ inches—across, has not reached the membranes that surround the lungs (visceral pleura), and does not affect the main branches of the bronchi.

If the tumor is 2 cm (about 4/5 of an inch) or less across, it is called T1a. If the tumor is larger than 2 cm but not larger than 3 cm across, it is called T1b.

T2: The tumor has 1 or more of the following features:

  • It is larger than 3 cm across but not larger than 7 cm.
  • It involves a main bronchus, but is not closer than 2 cm (about ¾ inch) to the carina (the point where the windpipe splits into the left and right main bronchi).
  • It has grown into the membranes that surround the lungs (visceral pleura).
  • The tumor partially clogs the airways, but this has not caused the entire lung to collapse or develop pneumonia.

If the tumor is 5 cm or less across, it is called T2a. If the tumor is larger than 5 cm across (but not larger than 7 cm), it is called T2b.

T3: The tumor has 1 or more of the following features:

  • It is larger than 7 cm across.
  • It has grown into the chest wall, the breathing muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen (diaphragm), the membranes surrounding the space between the two lungs (mediastinal pleura), or membranes of the sac surrounding the heart (parietal pericardium).
  • It has grown into a main bronchus and is closer than 2 cm (about ¾ inch) to the carina, but it does not involve the carina itself.
  • It has grown into the airways enough to cause an entire lung to collapse or to cause pneumonia in the entire lung.
  • Two or more separate tumor nodules are present in the same lobe of a lung.

T4: The cancer has 1 or more of the following features:

  • A tumor of any size has grown into the space between the lungs (mediastinum), the heart, the large blood vessels near the heart (such as the aorta), the windpipe (trachea), the tube connecting the throat to the stomach (esophagus), the backbone, or the carina.
  • Two or more separate tumor nodules are present in different lobes of the same lung.

N categories for lung cancer

NX: Nearby lymph nodes cannot be assessed.

N0: There is no spread to nearby lymph nodes.

N1: The cancer has spread to lymph nodes within the lung and/or around the area where the bronchus enters the lung (hilar lymph nodes). Affected lymph nodes are on the same side as the primary tumor.

N2: The cancer has spread to lymph nodes around the carina (the point where the windpipe splits into the left and right bronchi) or in the space between the lungs (mediastinum). Affected lymph nodes are on the same side as the primary tumor.

N3: The cancer has spread to lymph nodes near the collarbone on either side, and/or spread to hilar or mediastinal lymph nodes on the side opposite the primary tumor.

M categories for lung cancer

M0: No spread to distant organs or areas. This includes the other lung, lymph nodes further away than those mentioned in the N stages above, and other organs or tissues such as the liver, bones, or brain.

M1a: Any of the following:

  • The cancer has spread to the other lung.
  • The cancer has spread as nodules (small lumps) in the pleura (the lining of the lung).
  • Cancer cells are found in the fluid around the lung (called a malignant pleural effusion).
  • Cancer cells are found in the fluid around the heart (called a malignant pericardial effusion).

M1b: The cancer has spread to distant lymph nodes or to other organs such as the liver, bones, or brain.

Stage grouping for lung cancer

Once the T, N, and M categories have been assigned, this information is combined to assign an overall stage of 0, I, II, III, or IV. This process is called stage grouping. Some stages are subdivided into A and B. The stages identify cancers that have a similar outlook (prognosis) and thus are treated in a similar way. Patients with lower stage numbers tend to have a better outlook.

Occult (hidden) cancer

TX, N0, M0: Cancer cells are seen in a sample of sputum or other lung fluids, but the cancer isn’t found with other tests, so its location can’t be determined.

Stage 0

Tis, N0, M0: The cancer is found only in the top layers of cells lining the air passages. It has not invaded deeper into other lung tissues and has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage IA

T1a/T1b, N0, M0: The cancer is no larger than 3 cm across, has not reached the membranes that surround the lungs, and does not affect the main branches of the bronchi. It has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage IB

T2a, N0, M0: The cancer has 1 or more of the following features:

  • The main tumor is larger than 3 cm across but not larger than 5 cm.
  • The tumor has grown into a main bronchus, but is not within 2 cm of the carina (and it is not larger than 5 cm).
  • The tumor has grown into the visceral pleura (the membranes surrounding the lungs) and is not larger than 5 cm.
  • The tumor is partially clogging the airways (and is not larger than 5 cm).

The cancer has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage IIA

Three main combinations of categories make up this stage.

T1a/T1b, N1, M0: The cancer is no larger than 3 cm across, has not grown into the membranes that surround the lungs, and does not affect the main branches of the bronchi. It has spread to lymph nodes within the lung and/or around the area where the bronchus enters the lung (hilar lymph nodes). These lymph nodes are on the same side as the cancer. It has not spread to distant sites.

OR

T2a, N1, M0: The cancer has 1 or more of the following features:

  • The main tumor is larger than 3 cm across but not larger than 5 cm.
  • The tumor has grown into a main bronchus, but is not within 2 cm of the carina (and it is not larger than 5 cm).
  • The tumor has grown into the visceral pleura (the membranes surrounding the lungs) and is not larger than 5 cm.
  • The tumor is partially clogging the airways (and is not larger than 5 cm).

The cancer has also spread to lymph nodes within the lung and/or around the area where the bronchus enters the lung (hilar lymph nodes). These lymph nodes are on the same side as the cancer. It has not spread to distant sites.

OR

T2b, N0, M0: The cancer has 1 or more of the following features:

  • The main tumor is larger than 5 cm across but not larger than 7 cm.
  • The tumor has grown into a main bronchus, but is not within 2 cm of the carina (and it is between 5 and 7 cm across).
  • The tumor has grown into the visceral pleura (the membranes surrounding the lungs) and is between 5 and 7 cm across.
  • The tumor is partially clogging the airways (and is between 5 and 7 cm across).

The cancer has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage IIB

Two combinations of categories make up this stage.

T2b, N1, M0: The cancer has 1 or more of the following features:

  • The main tumor is larger than 5 cm across but not larger than 7 cm.
  • The tumor has grown into a main bronchus, but is not within 2 cm of the carina (and it is between 5 and 7 cm across).
  • The tumor has grown into the visceral pleura (the membranes surrounding the lungs) and is between 5 and 7 cm across.
  • The cancer is partially clogging the airways (and is between 5 and 7 cm across).

It has also spread to lymph nodes within the lung and/or around the area where the bronchus enters the lung (hilar lymph nodes). These lymph nodes are on the same side as the cancer. It has not spread to distant sites.

OR

T3, N0, M0: The main tumor has 1 or more of the following features:

  • It is larger than 7 cm across.
  • It has grown into the chest wall, the breathing muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen (diaphragm), the membranes surrounding the space between the lungs (mediastinal pleura), or membranes of the sac surrounding the heart (parietal pericardium).
  • It invades a main bronchus and is closer than 2 cm (about ¾ inch) to the carina, but it does not involve the carina itself.
  • It has grown into the airways enough to cause an entire lung to collapse or to cause pneumonia in the entire lung.
  • Two or more separate tumor nodules are present in the same lobe of a lung.

The cancer has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage IIIA

Three main combinations of categories make up this stage.

T1 to T3, N2, M0: The main tumor can be any size. It has not grown into the space between the lungs (mediastinum), the heart, the large blood vessels near the heart (such as the aorta), the windpipe (trachea), the tube connecting the throat to the stomach (esophagus), the backbone, or the carina. It has not spread to different lobes of the same lung.

The cancer has spread to lymph nodes around the carina (the point where the windpipe splits into the left and right bronchi) or in the space between the lungs (mediastinum). These lymph nodes are on the same side as the main lung tumor. The cancer has not spread to distant sites.

OR

T3, N1, M0: The cancer has 1 or more of the following features:

  • It is larger than 7 cm across.
  • It has grown into the chest wall, the breathing muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen (diaphragm), the membranes surrounding the space between the lungs (mediastinal pleura), or membranes of the sac surrounding the heart (parietal pericardium).
  • It invades a main bronchus and is closer than 2 cm to the carina, but it does not involve the carina itself.
  • Two or more separate tumor nodules are present in the same lobe of a lung.
  • It has grown into the airways enough to cause an entire lung to collapse or to cause pneumonia in the entire lung.

It has also spread to lymph nodes within the lung and/or around the area where the bronchus enters the lung (hilar lymph nodes). These lymph nodes are on the same side as the cancer. It has not spread to distant sites.

OR

T4, N0 or N1, M0: The cancer has 1 or more of the following features:

  • A tumor of any size has grown into the space between the lungs (mediastinum), the heart, the large blood vessels near the heart (such as the aorta), the windpipe (trachea), the tube connecting the throat to the stomach (esophagus), the backbone, or the carina.
  • Two or more separate tumor nodules are present in different lobes of the same lung.

It may or may not have spread to lymph nodes within the lung and/or around the area where the bronchus enters the lung (hilar lymph nodes). Any affected lymph nodes are on the same side as the cancer. It has not spread to distant sites.

Stage IIIB

Two combinations of categories make up this stage.

Any T, N3, M0: The cancer can be of any size. It may or may not have grown into nearby structures or caused pneumonia or lung collapse. It has spread to lymph nodes near the collarbone on either side, and/or has spread to hilar or mediastinal lymph nodes on the side opposite the primary tumor. The cancer has not spread to distant sites.

OR

T4, N2, M0: The cancer has 1 or more of the following features:

  • A tumor of any size has grown into the space between the lungs (mediastinum), the heart, the large blood vessels near the heart (such as the aorta), the windpipe (trachea), the tube connecting the throat to the stomach (esophagus), the backbone, or the carina.
  • Two or more separate tumor nodules are present in different lobes of the same lung.

The cancer has also spread to lymph nodes around the carina (the point where the windpipe splits into the left and right bronchi) or in the space between the lungs (mediastinum). Affected lymph nodes are on the same side as the main lung tumor. It has not spread to distant sites.

Stage IV

Two combinations of categories make up this stage.

Any T, any N, M1a: The cancer can be any size and may or may not have grown into nearby structures or reached nearby lymph nodes. In addition, any of the following is true:

  • The cancer has spread to the other lung.
  • The cancer has spread as nodules (small lumps) in the pleura (the lining of the lung).
  • Cancer cells are found in the fluid around the lung (called a malignant pleural effusion).
  • Cancer cells are found in the fluid around the heart (called a malignant pericardial effusion).

OR

Any T, any N, M1b: The cancer can be any size and may or may not have grown into nearby structures or reached nearby lymph nodes. It has spread to distant lymph nodes or to other organs such as the liver, bones, or brain.

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Survival Rates, by Stage

Survival rates tell you what portion of people with the same type and stage of cancer are still alive a certain amount of time (usually 5 years) after they were diagnosed. These numbers can’t tell you how long you will live, but they may help give you a better understanding about how likely it is that your treatment will be successful.

What is a 5-year survival rate ?

Statistics on the outlook for a certain type and stage of cancer are often given as 5-year survival rates, but many people live longer – often much longer – than 5 years. The 5-year survival rate is the percentage of people who live at least 5 years after being diagnosed with cancer. For example, a 5-year survival rate of 80% means that an estimated 80 out of 100 people who have that cancer are still alive 5 years after being diagnosed. Keep in mind, however, that many of these people live much longer than 5 years after diagnosis.

But remember, the 5-year survival rates are estimates – your outlook can vary based on a number of factors specific to you.
Survival rates don’t tell the whole story

Survival rates are often based on previous outcomes of large numbers of people who had the disease, but they can’t predict what will happen in any particular person’s case. There are a number of limitations to keep in mind:

  • The numbers below are among the most current available. But to get 5-year survival rates, doctors have to look at people who were treated at least 5 years ago. As treatments are improving over time, people who are now being diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer may have a better outlook than these statistics show.
  • These statistics are based on the stage of the cancer when it was first diagnosed. They do not apply to cancers that later come back or spread, for example.
  • The outlook for people with non-small cell lung cancer varies by the stage (extent) of the cancer – in general, the survival rates are higher for people with earlier stage cancers.
  • But many other factors can affect a person’s outlook, such as the subtype of non-small cell lung cancer, gene changes in the cancer cells, the person’s age and overall health, and how well the cancer responds to treatment. The outlook for each person is specific to his or her circumstances.

Your doctor can tell you how these numbers may apply to you, as he or she is familiar with your particular situation.

Survival rates for non-small cell lung cancer, by stage

The numbers below are calculated from the National Cancer Institute’s SEER database, based on people who were diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer between 1998 and 2000. Although they are based on people diagnosed several years ago, they are the most recent rates published for the current AJCC staging system.

These survival rates include people who die from causes other than cancer.

  • The 5-year survival rate for people with stage IA non-small cell lung cancer is about 49%.
  • For people with stage IB non-small cell lung cancer the 5-year survival rate is about 45%.
  • For stage IIA cancer, the 5-year survival rate is about 30%.
  • For stage IIB cancer, the survival rate is about 31%.
  • The 5-year survival rate for stage IIIA non-small cell lung cancer is about 14%.
  • For stage IIIB cancers the survival rate is about 5%.
  • Non-small cell lung cancer that has spread to other parts of the body is often hard to treat. Metastatic, or stage IV non-small cell lung cancer, has a 5-year survival rate of about 1%. Still, there are often many treatment options available for people with this stage of cancer.

Remember, these survival rates are only estimates – they can’t predict what will happen to any individual person. These statistics can be confusing and may lead you to have more questions. Talk to your doctor to better understand your specific situation.

Non-small cell lung cancer treatment

Depending on the stage of the cancer and other factors, treatment options for people with non-small cell lung cancer can include:

  • Surgery
  • Radiofrequency ablation (RFA)
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapies
  • Immunotherapy

Palliative treatments can also be used to help with symptoms.

In many cases, more than one of type of treatment is used.

Which doctors treat non-small cell lung cancer ?

You may have different types of doctors on your treatment team, depending on the stage of your cancer and your treatment options. These doctors could include:

  • A thoracic surgeon: a doctor who treats diseases of the lungs and chest with surgery
  • A radiation oncologist: a doctor who treats cancer with radiation therapy
  • A medical oncologist: a doctor who treats cancer with medicines such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy
  • A pulmonologist: a doctor who specializes in medical treatment of diseases of the lungs

You might have many other specialists on your treatment team as well, including physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, respiratory therapists, nutrition specialists, social workers, and other health professionals. See Health Professionals Associated With Cancer Care for more on this.

Making treatment decisions

It’s important to discuss all of your treatment options, including their goals and possible side effects, with your doctors to help make the decision that best fits your needs. It’s also very important to ask questions if there is anything you’re not sure about.

Getting a second opinion

You may also want to get a second opinion. This can give you more information and help you feel more certain about the treatment plan you choose. If you aren’t sure where to go for a second opinion, ask your doctor for help.

Thinking about taking part in a clinical trial

Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that are done to get a closer look at promising new treatments or procedures. Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the art cancer treatment. In some cases they may be the only way to get access to newer treatments. They are also the best way for doctors to learn better methods to treat cancer. Still, they are not right for everyone.

If you would like to learn more about clinical trials that might be right for you, start by asking your doctor if your clinic or hospital conducts clinical trials.

Considering complementary and alternative methods

You may hear about complementary or alternative methods that your doctor hasn’t mentioned to treat your cancer or relieve symptoms. These methods can include vitamins, herbs, and special diets, or other methods such as acupuncture or massage, to name a few.

Complementary methods refer to treatments that are used along with your regular medical care. Alternative treatments are used instead of a doctor’s medical treatment. Although some of these methods might be helpful in relieving symptoms or helping you feel better, many have not been proven to work. Some might even be dangerous.

As you consider your options, look for “red flags” that might suggest fraud. Does the method promise to cure all or most cancers? Are you told not to have regular medical treatments? Is the treatment a “secret” that requires you to visit certain providers or travel to another country?

Be sure to talk to your cancer care team about any method you are thinking about using. They can help you learn what is known (or not known) about the method, which can help you make an informed decision.

Choosing to stop treatment or choosing no treatment at all

For some people, when treatments have been tried and are no longer controlling the cancer, it could be time to weigh the benefits and risks of continuing to try new treatments. Whether or not you continue treatment, there are still things you can do to help maintain or improve your quality of life. Learn more in If Cancer Treatments Stop Working.

Some people, especially if the cancer is advanced, might not want to be treated at all. There are many reasons you might decide not to get cancer treatment, but it’s important to talk this through with your doctors before you make this decision. Remember that even if you choose not to treat the cancer, you can still get supportive care to help with pain or other symptoms.

Help getting through treatment

Your cancer care team will be your first source of information and support, but there are other resources for help when you need it. Hospital- or clinic-based support services are an important part of your care. These might include nursing or social work services, financial aid, nutritional advice, rehab, or spiritual help.

Surgery

Surgery to remove the cancer (often along with other treatments) may be an option for early stage non-small cell lung cancer. If surgery can be done, it provides the best chance to cure non-small cell lung cancer. Lung cancer surgery is a complex operation that can have serious consequences, so it should be done by a surgeon who has a lot of experience operating on lung cancers.

Doctors now use video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) to treat some small lung tumors. This procedure lets doctors remove parts of the lung through smaller incisions, which can result in shorter hospital stays and less pain for patients. Doctors are now studying if video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) can be used for larger lung tumors.

In a newer approach to this type of operation, the surgeon sits at a specially designed control panel inside the operating room to maneuver long surgical instruments using robotic arms. This approach, known as robotic-assisted surgery, is now being used in some larger cancer centers.

Types of lung surgery

Different operations can be used to treat (and possibly cure) non-small cell lung cancer:

  • Pneumonectomy: This surgery removes an entire lung. This might be needed if the tumor is close to the center of the chest.
  • Lobectomy: The lungs are made up of 5 lobes (3 on the right and 2 on the left). In this surgery, the entire lobe containing the tumor(s) is removed. This is often the preferred type of operation for non-small cell lung cancer if it can be done.
  • Segmentectomy or wedge resection: In these surgeries, only part of a lobe is removed. This approach might be used, for example, if a person doesn’t have enough lung function to withstand removing the whole lobe.
  • Sleeve resection: This operation may be used to treat some cancers in large airways in the lungs. If you think of the large airway with a tumor as similar to the sleeve of a shirt with a stain a couple of inches above the wrist, the sleeve resection would be like cutting across the sleeve above and below the stain and then sewing the cuff back onto the shortened sleeve. A surgeon may be able to do this operation instead of a pneumonectomy to preserve more lung function.

With any of these operations, nearby lymph nodes are also removed to look for possible spread of the cancer. These operations require general anesthesia (where you are in a deep sleep) and are usually done through a surgical incision between the ribs in the side of the chest (called a thoracotomy).

The type of operation your doctor recommends depends on the size and location of the tumor and on how well your lungs are functioning. Doctors often prefer to do a more extensive operation (for example, a lobectomy instead of a segmentectomy) if a person’s lungs are healthy enough, as it may provide a better chance to cure the cancer.

When you wake up from surgery, you will have a tube (or tubes) coming out of your chest and attached to a special canister to allow excess fluid and air to drain out. The tube(s) will be removed once the fluid drainage and air leak subside. Generally, you will need to spend 5 to 7 days in the hospital after the surgery.

Possible risks and side effects of lung surgery

Surgery for lung cancer is a major operation and can have serious side effects, which is why surgery isn’t a good idea for everyone. While all surgeries carry some risks, these depend to some degree on the extent of the surgery and the person’s health beforehand.

Possible complications during and soon after surgery can include reactions to anesthesia, excess bleeding, blood clots in the legs or lungs, wound infections, and pneumonia. While it is rare, some people may not survive the surgery.

Recovering from lung cancer surgery typically takes weeks to months. If the surgery is done through a thoracotomy (a long incision in the chest), the surgeon must spread ribs to get to the lung, so the area near the incision will hurt for some time after surgery. Your activity might be limited for at least a month or two. People who have video-assisted thoracic surgery instead of thoracotomy tend to have less pain after surgery and to recover more quickly.

If your lungs are in good condition (other than the presence of the cancer) you can usually return to normal activities after some time if a lobe or even an entire lung has been removed. If you also have another lung disease such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis (which are common among long-time smokers), you might become short of breath with certain levels of activity after surgery.

Surgery for lung cancers with limited spread to other organs

If the lung cancer has spread to your brain or to an adrenal gland and there is only one tumor, you may benefit from having the tumor removed. This surgery should be considered only if the tumor in the lung can also be removed completely. Even then, not all lung cancer experts agree with this approach, especially if the tumor is in the adrenal gland.

For tumors in the brain, this is done by surgery through a hole in the skull (called a craniotomy). It should only be done if the tumor can be removed without damaging vital areas of the brain.

Radiation therapy

Depending on the stage of the non-small cell lung cancer and other factors, radiation therapy might be used:

  • As the main treatment (sometimes along with chemotherapy), especially if the lung tumor can’t be removed because of its size or location, if a person isn’t healthy enough for surgery, or if a person doesn’t want surgery.
  • After surgery (alone or along with chemotherapy) to try to kill any small areas of cancer that surgery might have missed.
  • Before surgery (usually along with chemotherapy) to try to shrink a lung tumor to make it easier to operate on.
  • To treat a single area of cancer spread, such as a tumor in the brain or an adrenal gland. (This might be done along with surgery to treat the main lung tumor.)
  • To relieve (palliate) symptoms of advanced NSCLC such as pain, bleeding, trouble swallowing, cough, or problems caused by spread to other organs such as the brain. For example, brachytherapy is most often used to help relieve blockage of large airways by cancer.

Types of radiation therapy

There are 2 main types of radiation therapy:

  • External beam radiation therapy
  • Brachytherapy (internal radiation therapy)

External beam radiation therapy

External beam radiation therapy focuses radiation from outside the body on the cancer. This is the type of radiation therapy most often used to treat non-small cell lung cancer or its spread to other organs.

Before your treatments start, the radiation team will take careful measurements to determine the correct angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose of radiation. This planning session, called simulation, usually includes getting imaging tests such as CT scans.

Treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation dose is stronger. The procedure itself is painless. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, although the setup time – getting you into place for treatment – usually takes longer. Most often, radiation treatments to the lungs are given 5 days a week for 5 to 7 weeks, but this can vary based on the type of external beam radiation therapy and the reason it’s being given.

In recent years, newer external beam radiation therapy techniques have been shown to help doctors treat lung cancers more accurately while lowering the radiation exposure to nearby healthy tissues. These include:

  • Three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT): 3D-CRT uses special computers to precisely map the tumor’s location. Radiation beams are then shaped and aimed at the tumor(s) from several directions, which makes it less likely to damage normal tissues.
  • Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): IMRT is an advanced form of 3D therapy. It uses a computer-driven machine that moves around you as it delivers radiation. Along with shaping the beams and aiming them at the tumor from several angles, the intensity (strength) of the beams can be adjusted to limit the dose reaching nearby normal tissues. This technique is used most often if tumors are near important structures such as the spinal cord. Many cancer centers now use IMRT.

A variation of IMRT is called volumetric modulated arc therapy (VMAT). It uses a machine that delivers radiation quickly as it rotates once around the body. This allows each treatment to be given over just a few minutes.

Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT): SBRT, also known as stereotactic ablative radiotherapy (SABR), is sometimes used to treat very early-stage lung cancers when surgery isn’t an option due to a person’s health or in people who don’t want surgery.

Instead of giving a small dose of radiation each day for several weeks, SBRT uses very focused beams of high-dose radiation given in fewer (usually 1 to 5) treatments. Several beams are aimed at the tumor from different angles. To target the radiation precisely, you are put in a specially designed body frame for each treatment. This reduces the movement of the lung tumor during breathing. Like other forms of external radiation, the treatment itself is painless.

Early results with SBRT for smaller lung tumors have been very promising, and it seems to have a low risk of complications. It is also being studied for tumors that have spread to other parts of the body, such as the bones or liver.

Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS): SRS is a type of stereotactic radiation therapy that is given in only one session. It can sometimes be used instead of or along with surgery for single tumors that have spread to the brain. In one version of this treatment, a machine called a Gamma Knife® focuses about 200 beams of radiation on the tumor from different angles over a few minutes to hours. Your head is kept in the same position with a rigid frame. In another version, a linear accelerator (a machine that creates radiation) that is controlled by a computer moves around your head to deliver radiation to the tumor from many different angles. These treatments can be repeated if needed.

Brachytherapy (internal radiation therapy)

In people with non-small cell lung cancer, brachytherapy is sometimes used to shrink tumors in the airway to relieve symptoms.

For this type of treatment, the doctor places a small source of radioactive material (often in the form of small pellets) directly into the cancer or into the airway next to the cancer. This is usually done through a bronchoscope, but it may also be done during surgery. The radiation travels only a short distance from the source, limiting the effects on surrounding healthy tissues. The radiation source is usually removed after a short time. Less often, small radioactive “seeds” are left in place permanently, and the radiation gets weaker over several weeks.

Several newer methods of giving radiation therapy have become available in recent years, For example, some newer radiation therapy machines have imaging scanners built into them. This advance, known as image guided radiation therapy (IGRT), lets the doctor take pictures of the lung and make minor adjustments in aiming just before giving the radiation. This may help deliver the radiation more precisely, which might result in fewer side effects.

Possible side effects of radiation therapy

If you are going to get radiation therapy, it’s important to ask your doctor beforehand about the possible side effects so you know what to expect. Common side effects depend on where the radiation is aimed and can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Skin changes in the area being treated, which can range from mild redness to blistering and peeling
  • Hair loss where the radiation enters the body

Often these go away after treatment. When radiation is given with chemotherapy, the side effects are often worse.

Radiation therapy to the chest may damage your lungs and cause a cough, problems breathing, and shortness of breath. These usually improve after treatment is over, although sometimes they may not go away completely.

Your esophagus, which is in the middle of your chest, may be exposed to radiation, which could cause a sore throat and trouble swallowing during treatment. This might make it hard to eat anything other than soft foods or liquids for a while. This also improves after completion of treatment.

Radiation therapy to large areas of the brain can sometimes cause memory loss, headaches, trouble thinking, or reduced sexual desire. Usually these symptoms are minor compared with those caused by a brain tumor, but they can affect your quality of life.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy (chemo) is treatment with anti-cancer drugs injected into a vein or taken by mouth. These drugs enter the bloodstream and go throughout the body, making this treatment useful for cancer anywhere in the body.

Depending on the stage of non-small cell lung cancer and other factors, chemo may be used in different situations:

  • Before surgery (sometimes along with radiation therapy) to try to shrink a tumor. This is known as neoadjuvant therapy.
  • After surgery (sometimes along with radiation therapy) to try to kill any cancer cells that might have been left behind. This is known as adjuvant therapy.
  • Along with radiation therapy (concurrent therapy) for some cancers that can’t be removed by surgery because the cancer has grown into nearby important structures
  • As the main treatment (sometimes along with radiation therapy) for more advanced cancers or for some people who aren’t healthy enough for surgery.

Chemo is often not recommended for patients in poor health, but advanced age by itself is not a barrier to getting chemo.

Drugs used to treat non-small cell lung cancer

The chemo drugs most often used for non-small cell lung cancer include:

  • Cisplatin
  • Carboplatin
  • Paclitaxel (Taxol)
  • Albumin-bound paclitaxel (nab-paclitaxel, Abraxane)
  • Docetaxel (Taxotere)
  • Gemcitabine (Gemzar)
  • Vinorelbine (Navelbine)
  • Irinotecan (Camptosar)
  • Etoposide (VP-16)
  • Vinblastine
  • Pemetrexed (Alimta)

Most often, treatment for non-small cell lung cancer uses a combination of 2 chemo drugs. Studies have shown that adding a third chemo drug doesn’t add much benefit and is likely to cause more side effects. Single-drug chemo is sometimes used for people who might not tolerate combination chemotherapy well, such as those in poor overall health or who are elderly.

If a combination is used, it often includes cisplatin or carboplatin plus one other drug. Sometimes combinations that do not include these drugs, such as gemcitabine with vinorelbine or paclitaxel, may be used.

For people with advanced lung cancers who meet certain criteria, a targeted therapy drug such as bevacizumab (Avastin), ramucirumab (Cyramza), or necitumumab (Portrazza) may be added to treatment as well.

Doctors give chemo in cycles, with a period of treatment (usually 1 to 3 days) followed by a rest period to allow the body time to recover. Some chemo drugs, though, are given every day. Chemo cycles generally last about 3 to 4 weeks.

For advanced cancers, the initial chemo combination is often given for 4 to 6 cycles. Some doctors now recommend giving treatment beyond this with a single chemo or targeted drug, even in people who have had a good response to their initial chemotherapy. Some studies have found that this continuing treatment, known as maintenance therapy, might help keep the cancer in check and help some people live longer.

Lung Cancer Research ?

If the initial chemo treatment for advanced lung cancer is no longer working, the doctor may recommend second-line treatment with a single chemo drug such as docetaxel or pemetrexed, or with a targeted therapy or immunotherapy drug. Again, advanced age is no barrier to receiving these drugs as long as the person is in good general health.

New combinations: Many clinical trials are looking at newer combinations of chemotherapy drugs to determine which are the safest and most effective. This is especially important in patients who are older and have other health problems. Doctors are also studying better ways to combine chemotherapy with radiation therapy and other treatments.

Lab tests to help predict if chemo will be helpful: Doctors know that adjuvant chemotherapy after surgery may be more helpful for some people with early (stage I or II) cancers than for others, but figuring out which patients to give it to is not easy. In early studies, newer lab tests that look at patterns of certain genes in the cancer cells have shown promise in telling which people might benefit most. Larger studies of these tests are now trying to confirm their usefulness.

Other lab tests may help predict whether a lung cancer will respond to particular chemo drugs. For example, studies have found that tumors with high levels of the excision repair cross-complementation group 1 (ERCC1) gene protein are less likely to respond to chemo that includes cisplatin or carboplatin, while tumors with high levels of the RRM1 protein (Ribonucleotide Reductase Catalytic Subunit M1) seem less likely to respond to chemo with gemcitabine. Doctors are now looking to see if tests for these markers can help guide the choice of treatment, so these are not a part of standard treatment.

Possible side effects of chemotherapy

Chemo drugs attack cells that are dividing quickly, which is why they work against cancer cells. But other cells in the body, such as those in the bone marrow (where new blood cells are made), the lining of the mouth and intestines, and the hair follicles, also divide quickly. These cells are also likely to be affected by chemo, which can lead to certain side effects.

The side effects of chemo depend on the type and dose of drugs given and how long they are taken. Some common side effects include:

  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Increased chance of infections (from having too few white blood cells)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding (from having too few blood platelets)
  • Fatigue (from having too few red blood cells)

These side effects usually go away after treatment is finished. There are often ways to lessen these side effects. For example, drugs can be given to help prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting.

Some drugs can have specific side effects. For example, drugs such as cisplatin, vinorelbine, docetaxel, or paclitaxel can cause nerve damage (peripheral neuropathy). This can sometimes lead to symptoms (mainly in the hands and feet) such as pain, burning or tingling sensations, sensitivity to cold or heat, or weakness. In most people this goes away or gets better once treatment is stopped, but it may last a long time in some people.

Be sure to report any side effects you notice while getting chemo to your medical team so that they can be treated promptly. In some cases, the doses of the chemo drugs may need to be reduced or treatment may need to be delayed or stopped to prevent the effects from getting worse.

Targeted therapy drugs

Researchers are learning more about the inner workings of lung cancer cells that control their growth and spread. This is being used to develop new targeted therapy drugs. Many of these are already being used to treat non-small cell lung cancer. Others are now being tested in clinical trials to see if they can help people with advanced lung cancer live longer or relieve their symptoms. Newer targeted drugs being studied include ganetespib, nintedanib, selumetinib, dacomitinib, and custirsen.

Researchers are also working on lab tests to help predict which patients might be helped by which drugs. Studies have found that some patients do not benefit from certain targeted therapies, whereas others are more likely to have their tumors shrink. For example, a test can find changes in the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) gene that make it much more likely that a person’s lung cancer will respond to treatment with a targeted drug called an EGFR inhibitor. Similar gene tests for other targeted treatments are now being studied. Predicting who might benefit could save some people from trying treatments that are unlikely to work for them and would probably cause unneeded side effects.

Drugs that target tumor blood vessel growth (angiogenesis)

For tumors to grow, they need to form new blood vessels to keep them nourished. This process is called angiogenesis. Some targeted drugs, called angiogenesis inhibitors, block this new blood vessel growth:

Bevacizumab (Avastin) is used to treat advanced non-small cell lung cancer. It is a monoclonal antibody (a man-made version of a specific immune system protein) that targets vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), a protein that helps new blood vessels to form. This drug is often used with chemo for a time. Then if the cancer responds, the chemo may be stopped and the bevacizumab given by itself until the cancer starts growing again.

Ramucirumab (Cyramza) can also be used to treat advanced non-small cell lung cancer. VEGF has to bind to cell proteins called receptors to act. This drug is a monoclonal antibody that targets a VEGF receptor. This helps stop the formation of new blood vessels. This drug is most often given after another treatment stops working. It is often combined with chemo.

Side effects

Common side effects of these drugs include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Tiredness (fatigue)
  • Bleeding
  • Low white blood cell counts (with increased risk of infections)
  • Headaches
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea

Rare but possibly serious side effects can include blood clots, severe bleeding, holes (called perforations) forming in the intestine, heart problems, and slow wound healing. If a hole forms in the intestine it can lead to severe infection and may require surgery to correct.

Because of the risks of bleeding, these drugs typically aren’t used in people who are coughing up blood or who are taking drugs called blood thinners. The risk of serious bleeding in the lungs is higher in patients with the squamous cell type of non-small cell lung cancer, which is why most current guidelines do not recommend using bevacizumab in people with this type of lung cancer.

Drugs that target cells with EGFR changes

Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is a protein on the surface of cells. It normally helps the cells grow and divide. Some NSCLC cells have too much EGFR, which makes them grow faster. Drugs called EGFR inhibitors can block the signal from EGFR that tells the cells to grow. Some of these drugs can be used to treat non-small cell lung cancer.

EGFR inhibitors used in non-small cell lung cancer with EGFR gene mutations

  • Erlotinib (Tarceva)
  • Afatinib (Gilotrif)
  • Gefitinib (Iressa)

These drugs can be used alone (without chemo) as the first treatment for advanced NSCLCs that have certain mutations in the EGFR gene. These are more common in women and people who haven’t smoked. Erlotinib can also be used for advanced NSCLC without these mutations if chemo isn’t working. All of these medicines are taken as pills.

EGFR inhibitors that also target cells with the T790M mutation

EGFR inhibitors can often shrink tumors for several months or more. But eventually these drugs stop working for most people, usually because the cancer cells develop another mutation in the EGFR gene. One such mutation is known as T790M. But some newer EGFR inhibitors also work against cells with the T790M mutation, including osimertinib (Tagrisso).

Doctors now commonly get another tumor biopsy when EGFR inhibitors have stopped working to see if the patient has developed the T790M mutation.

EGFR inhibitors used for squamous cell non-small cell lung cancer

Necitumumab (Portrazza) is a monoclonal antibody (a man-made version of an immune system protein) that targets EGFR. It can be used along with chemotherapy as the first treatment in people with advanced squamous cell non-small cell lung cancer. This drug is given as an infusion into a vein (IV).

Side effects

Common side effects of all EGFR inhibitors include:

  • Skin problems
  • Diarrhea
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite

Skin problems can include an acne-like rash on the face and chest, which in some cases can lead to skin infections.

These drugs can also cause more serious, but less common, side effects. For example, necitumumab can lower the levels of certain minerals in the blood, which can affect the heart rhythm and in some cases might be life-threatening.

Drugs that target cells with ALK gene changes

About 5% of non-small cell lung cancers have a rearrangement in a gene called ALK. This change is most often seen in non-smokers (or light smokers) who have the adenocarcinoma subtype of non-small cell lung cancer. The ALK gene rearrangement produces an abnormal ALK protein that causes the cells to grow and spread. Drugs that target the abnormal ALK protein include:

  • Crizotinib (Xalkori)
  • Ceritinib (Zykadia)
  • Alectinib (Alecensa)
  • Brigatinib (Alunbrig)

These drugs can often shrink tumors in people whose lung cancers have the ALK gene change. Although they can help after chemo has stopped working, they are often used instead of chemo in people whose cancers have the ALK gene rearrangement.

At least some of these drugs also seem to be useful in treating people whose cancers have changes in the ROS1 gene.

These drugs are taken as pills.

Side effects

Common side effects of ALK inhibitors include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in vision

Other side effects are also possible. Some side effects can be severe, such as low white blood cell counts, lung inflammation, liver damage, and heart rhythm problems.

Drugs that target cells with BRAF gene changes

In some non-small cell lung cancers, the cells have changes in the BRAF gene. Cells with these changes make an altered BRAF protein that helps them grow. Some drugs target this and related proteins:

  • Dabrafenib (Tafinlar) is a type of drug known as a BRAF inhibitor, which attacks the BRAF protein directly.
  • Trametinib (Mekinist) is known as a MEK inhibitor, because it attacks the related MEK proteins.

These drugs can be used together to treat metastatic non-small cell lung cancer if it has a certain type of BRAF gene change.

These drugs are taken as pills or capsules each day.

Side effects

Common side effects can include skin thickening, rash, itching, sensitivity to the sun, headache, fever, joint pain, fatigue, hair loss, nausea, and diarrhea.

Less common but serious side effects can include bleeding, heart rhythm problems, liver or kidney problems, lung problems, severe allergic reactions, severe skin or eye problems, and increased blood sugar levels.

Some people treated with these drugs develop skin cancers, especially squamous cell skin cancers. Your doctor will want to check your skin often during treatment and for several months afterward. You should also let your doctor know right away if you notice any new growths or abnormal areas on your skin.

Radiofrequency Ablation

This treatment might be an option for some people some small lung tumors that are near the outer edge of the lungs, especially if they can’t tolerate surgery.

Radiofrequency Ablation uses high-energy radio waves to heat the tumor. A thin, needle-like probe is put through the skin and moved in until the tip is in the tumor. Placement of the probe is guided by CT scans. Once the tip is in place, an electric current is passed through the probe, which heats the tumor and destroys the cancer cells.

Radiofrequency Ablation is usually done as an outpatient procedure, using local anesthesia (numbing medicine) where the probe is inserted. You may be given medicine to help you relax as well.

You might have some pain where the needle was inserted for a few days after the procedure. Major complications are uncommon, but they can include the partial collapse of a lung (which often goes away on its own) or bleeding into the lung.

Immunotherapy for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

 

Researchers are developing immunotherapy drugs that can help the body’s immune system fight the cancer.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors: Cancer cells can sometimes avoid being attacked by the body’s immune system by using certain “checkpoints” that normally keep the immune system in check. For example, cancer cells often have a lot of a protein called PD-L1 on their surface that helps them evade the immune system. New drugs that block the PD-L1 protein, or the corresponding PD-1 protein on immune cells called T cells, can help the immune system recognize the cancer cells and attack them.

Nivolumab (Opdivo) and pembrolizumab (Keytruda) are anti-PD-1 drugs that have been shown to shrink or slow the growth of some tumors. Atezolizumab (Tecentriq) is an anti-PD-L1 drug that has also been shown to shrink some tumors. These drugs are now approved for use in advanced NSCLC. They are typically used after certain other treatments have been tried, although pembrolizumab can also be used as the first treatment in some cases.

Other, similar drugs such as MEDI4736 might also shrink some lung cancer tumors. Large studies of these new drugs are now being done.

Vaccines: Several types of vaccines for boosting the body’s immune response against lung cancer cells are being tested in clinical trials. Unlike vaccines against infections like measles or mumps, these vaccines are designed to help treat, not prevent, lung cancer. These types of treatments seem to have very limited side effects, so they might be useful in people who can’t tolerate other treatments.

Some vaccines are made up of parts of proteins commonly found on lung cancer cells. For example, the MUC1 protein is found on some lung cancer cells. A vaccine called TG4010 causes the immune system to react against the MUC1 protein. Early research has suggested this vaccine might be helpful when given along with chemo. More studies are planned to see if the vaccine will help patients live longer.

At this time, lung cancer vaccines are only available in clinical trials.

Maintenance therapy

For people with advanced lung cancers who get chemotherapy, combinations of 2 chemo drugs (sometimes along with a targeted drug) are typically given for about 4 to 6 cycles. Some studies have found that with cancers that have not progressed, continuing treatment beyond the 4 to 6 cycles with a single chemo drug such as pemetrexed or with a targeted drug may help some people live longer. This is known as maintenance therapy. A possible downside to this continued treatment is that people may not get a break from treatment side effects. Some doctors now recommend maintenance therapy, while others await further research on this topic.

Palliative Procedures for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Palliative, or supportive care, is aimed at relieving symptoms and improving a person’s quality of life.

People with lung cancer often benefit from procedures to help with problems caused by the cancer. For example, people with advanced lung cancer can have shortness of breath. This can be caused by a number of things, including fluid around the lung or an airway that is blocked by a tumor. Although treating the cancer with chemotherapy or other drugs may help with this, other treatments may be needed as well.

Treating fluid buildup in the area around the lungs

Sometimes fluid can build up in the chest outside of the lungs. This is called a pleural effusion. It can press on the lungs and cause trouble breathing.

Thoracentesis

This is done to drain the fluid. For this procedure, the doctor will numb an area in the chest, and then place a hollow needle into the space between the lungs and the ribs to drain the fluid. This is often done using ultrasound to guide the needle into the fluid.

Pleurodesis

This procedure might be done to remove the fluid and keep it from coming back.

One way to do this is to make a small cut in the skin of the chest wall, and place a hollow tube (called a chest tube) into the chest to remove the fluid. Then a substance is instilled into the chest through the tube that causes the linings of the lung (visceral pleura) and chest wall (parietal pleura) to stick together, sealing the space and limiting further fluid buildup. A number of substances can be used for this, such as talc, the antibiotic doxycycline, or a chemotherapy drug like bleomycin. The tube is often left in for a couple of days to drain any new fluid that might collect.

Another way to do this is to blow talc into the space around the lungs during an operation. This is done through a small incision using thoracoscopy.

Catheter placement

This is another way to control the buildup of fluid. One end of the catheter (a thin, flexible tube) is placed in the chest through a small cut in the skin, and the other end is left outside the body. This is done in a doctor’s office or hospital. Once in place, the catheter can be attached to a special bottle or other device to allow the fluid to drain out on a regular basis.

Treating fluid buildup around the heart

Lung cancer can sometimes spread to the area around the heart. This can lead to fluid buildup inside the sac around the heart (called a pericardial effusion). The fluid can press on the heart, affecting how well it works.

Pericardiocentesis

In this procedure, the fluid is drained with a needle placed into the space around the heart. This is usually done using an ultrasound of the heart (echocardiogram) to guide the needle.

Creating a pericardial window

This procedure can be done to keep the fluid from building up again. During surgery, a piece of the sac around the heart (the pericardium) is removed to allow the fluid to drain into the chest or belly.

Treating an airway blocked by a tumor

If the cancer is growing into an airway in the lung, it can block the airway and cause problems like pneumonia or shortness of breath. Treatments can often relieve the blockage in the airway.

Photodynamic therapy (PDT)

This type of treatment can be used to treat very early-stage lung cancers that are only in the outer layers of the lung airways, when other treatments aren’t appropriate. It can also be used to help open up airways blocked by tumors to help people breathe better.

For this technique, a light-activated drug called porfimer sodium (Photofrin) is injected into a vein. This drug collects more in cancer cells than in normal cells. After a couple of days (to give the drug time to build up in the cancer cells), a bronchoscope is passed down the throat and into the lung. This may be done with either local anesthesia (where the throat is numbed) and sedation, or with general anesthesia (where you are in a deep sleep). A special laser light on the end of the bronchoscope is aimed at the tumor, which activates the drug and causes the cells to die. The dead cells are then removed a few days later during a bronchoscopy. This process can be repeated if needed.

PDT can cause swelling in the airway for a few days, which may lead to some shortness of breath, as well as coughing up blood or thick mucus. Some of this drug also collects in normal cells in the body, such as skin and eye cells. This can make you very sensitive to sunlight or strong indoor lights. Too much exposure can cause serious skin reactions (like a severe sunburn), so doctors recommend staying out of any strong light for several weeks after the injection.

Laser therapy

Lasers can sometimes be used to treat very small tumors in the linings of airways. They can also be used to help open up airways blocked by larger tumors to help people breathe better.

You are usually asleep (under general anesthesia) for this type of treatment. The laser is on the end of a bronchoscope, which is passed down the throat and next to the tumor. The doctor then aims the laser beam at the tumor to burn it away. This treatment can usually be repeated, if needed.
Stent placement

If a lung tumor has grown into an airway and is causing problems, sometimes a hard silicone or metal tube called a stent is placed in the airway to help keep it open using a bronchoscope. This is often done after other treatments such as PDT or laser therapy.

Small cell lung cancer

Small cell lung cancer which is sometimes called oat cell cancer. About 10% to 15% of lung cancers are small cell lung cancer.

Small Cell Lung Cancer Risk Factors

A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. Some risk factors, like smoking, can be changed. Others, like a person’s age or family history, can’t be changed.

But having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean that you will get the disease. And some people who get the disease may have few or no known risk factors.

Several risk factors can make you more likely to develop lung cancer. These factors are related to the risk of lung cancer in general, so it’s possible that some of these might not apply to small cell lung cancer.

Tobacco smoke

Smoking is by far the leading risk factor for lung cancer. About 80% of all lung cancer deaths are thought to result from smoking, and this number is probably even higher for small cell lung cancer. It’s very rare for someone who has never smoked to have small cell lung cancer. The risk for lung cancer among smokers is many times higher than among non-smokers. The longer you smoke and the more packs per day you smoke, the greater your risk.

Cigar smoking and pipe smoking are almost as likely to cause lung cancer as cigarette smoking. Smoking low-tar or “light” cigarettes increases lung cancer risk as much as regular cigarettes. Smoking menthol cigarettes might increase the risk even more, as the menthol may allow smokers to inhale more deeply.

Secondhand smoke: If you don’t smoke, breathing in the smoke of others (called secondhand smoke or environmental tobacco smoke) can increase your risk of developing lung cancer. Secondhand smoke is thought to cause more than 7,000 deaths from lung cancer each year.

Exposure to radon

Radon is a radioactive gas that occurs naturally when uranium in soil and rocks breaks down. It cannot be seen, tasted, or smelled. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, and is the leading cause among non-smokers.

Outdoors, there is so little radon that it is not likely to be dangerous. But indoors, radon can become more concentrated. Breathing it in exposes your lungs to small amounts of radiation. This might increase your risk of lung cancer.

Homes and other buildings in nearly any part of the United States can have high indoor radon levels (especially in basements).

Exposure to asbestos

People who work with asbestos (such as in some mines, mills, textile plants, places that use insulation, and shipyards) are several times more likely to die of lung cancer. Lung cancer risk is much greater in workers exposed to asbestos who also smoke. It’s not clear how much low-level or short-term exposure to asbestos might raise lung cancer risk.

People exposed to large amounts of asbestos also have a greater risk of developing mesothelioma, a type of cancer that starts in the pleura (the lining surrounding the lungs).

In recent years, government regulations have greatly reduced the use of asbestos in commercial and industrial products. It’s still present in many homes and other older buildings, but it’s not usually considered harmful as long as it’s not released into the air by deterioration, demolition, or renovation.

Other cancer-causing substances in the workplace

Other carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) found in some workplaces that can increase lung cancer risk include:

  • Radioactive ores such as uranium
  • Inhaled chemicals such as arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, silica, vinyl chloride, nickel compounds, chromium compounds, coal products, mustard gas, and chloromethyl ethers
  • Diesel exhaust

The government and industry have taken steps in recent years to help protect workers from many of these exposures. But the dangers are still there, so if you work around these products, be careful to limit your exposure whenever possible.

Air pollution

In cities, air pollution (especially near heavily trafficked roads) appears to raise the risk of lung cancer slightly. This risk is far less than the risk caused by smoking, but some researchers estimate that worldwide about 5% of all deaths from lung cancer may be due to outdoor air pollution.

Arsenic in drinking water

Studies of people in parts of Southeast Asia and South America with high levels of arsenic in their drinking water have found a higher risk of lung cancer. In most of these studies, the levels of arsenic in the water were many times higher than those typically seen in the United States, even in areas where arsenic levels are above normal. For most Americans who are on public water systems, drinking water is not a major source of arsenic.

Radiation therapy to the lungs

People who have had radiation therapy to the chest for other cancers are at higher risk for lung cancer, particularly if they smoke. Examples include people who have been treated for Hodgkin disease or women who get chest radiation after a mastectomy for breast cancer. Women who receive radiation therapy to the breast after a lumpectomy do not appear to have a higher than expected risk of lung cancer.

Personal or family history of lung cancer

If you have had lung cancer, you have a higher risk of developing another lung cancer.

Brothers, sisters, and children of those who have had lung cancer may have a slightly higher risk of lung cancer themselves, especially if the relative was diagnosed at a younger age. It’s not clear how much of this risk might be due to shared genes among family members and how much might be from shared household exposures (such as tobacco smoke or radon).

Researchers have found that genetics does seem to play a role in some families with a strong history of lung cancer. Research is ongoing in this area.

Certain dietary supplements

Studies looking at the possible role of vitamin supplements in reducing lung cancer risk have not been promising so far. In fact, 2 large studies found that smokers who took beta carotene supplements actually had an increased risk of lung cancer. The results of these studies suggest that smokers should avoid taking beta carotene supplements.

Factors with uncertain or unproven effects on lung cancer risk

Marijuana smoke

There are some reasons to think that smoking marijuana might increase lung cancer risk:

  • Marijuana smoke contains tar and many of same the cancer-causing substances that are in tobacco smoke. (Tar is the sticky, solid material that remains after burning, which is thought to contain most of the harmful substances in smoke.)
  • Marijuana cigarettes (joints) are typically smoked all the way to the end, where tar content is the highest.
  • Marijuana is inhaled very deeply and the smoke is held in the lungs for a long time, which gives any cancer-causing substances more opportunity to deposit in the lungs.
  • Because marijuana is still illegal in many places, it may not be possible to control what other substances it might contain.

Those who use marijuana tend to smoke fewer marijuana cigarettes in a day or week than the amount of tobacco consumed by cigarette smokers. The lesser amount smoked would make it harder to see an impact on lung cancer risk.

It’s been hard to study whether there is a link between marijuana and lung cancer because marijuana has been illegal in many places for so long, and it’s not easy to gather information about the use of illegal drugs.

Also, in studies that have looked at past marijuana use in people who had lung cancer, most of the marijuana smokers also smoked cigarettes. This can make it hard to know how much any increase in risk is from tobacco and how much might be from marijuana. More research is needed to know the cancer risks from smoking marijuana.

Talc and talcum powder

Talc is a mineral that in its natural form may contain asbestos. Some studies have suggested that talc miners and millers might have a higher risk of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases because of their exposure to industrial grade talc. But other studies have not found an increase in lung cancer rate.

Talcum powder is made from talc. By law since the 1970s, all home-use talcum products (baby, body, and facial powders) in the United States have been asbestos-free. The use of cosmetic talcum powder has not been found to increase lung cancer risk.

What Causes Small Cell Lung Cancer ?

We don’t know what causes each case of lung cancer. But we do know many of the risk factors for these cancers and how some of them can cause cells to become cancerous.

Smoking

Tobacco smoking is by far the leading cause of small cell lung cancer. Most small cell lung cancer deaths are caused by smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke.

Smoking is clearly the strongest risk factor for lung cancer, but it often interacts with other factors. Smokers exposed to other known risk factors such as radon and asbestos are at even higher risk. Not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer, so other factors like genetics probably play a role as well.

Lung cancer in non-smokers

It is rare for someone who has never smoked to be diagnosed with small cell lung cancer, but it can happen. Lung cancer in non-smokers can be caused by exposure to radon, secondhand smoke, air pollution, or other factors. Workplace exposures to asbestos, diesel exhaust, or certain other chemicals can also cause lung cancers in some people who don’t smoke.

A small portion of lung cancers occur in people with no known risk factors for the disease. Some of these might just be random events that don’t have an outside cause, but others might be due to factors that we don’t yet know about.

Gene changes that may lead to lung cancer

Some of the risk factors for lung cancer can cause certain changes in the DNA of lung cells. These changes can lead to abnormal cell growth and, sometimes, cancer. DNA is the chemical in each of our cells that makes up our genes, which control how our cells function. We usually look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. But DNA also can influence our risk for developing certain diseases, such as some kinds of cancer.

Some genes help control when cells grow, divide into new cells, and die:

  • Genes that help cells grow, divide, or stay alive are called oncogenes.
  • Genes that help control cell division or cause cells to die at the right time are called tumor suppressor genes.

Cancers can be caused by DNA changes that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes.

Inherited gene changes

Some people inherit DNA mutations (changes) from their parents that greatly increase their risk for developing certain cancers. But inherited mutations alone are not thought to cause very many lung cancers.

Still, genes do seem to play a role in some families with a history of lung cancer. For example, some people seem to inherit a reduced ability to break down or get rid of certain types of cancer-causing chemicals in the body, such as those found in tobacco smoke. This could put them at higher risk for lung cancer.

Other people may inherit faulty DNA repair mechanisms that make it more likely they will end up with DNA changes. People with DNA repair enzymes that don’t work normally might be especially vulnerable to cancer-causing chemicals and radiation.

Researchers are developing tests that may help identify such people, but these tests are not yet used routinely. For now, doctors recommend that all people avoid tobacco smoke and other exposures that might increase their cancer risk.

Acquired gene changes

Gene changes related to SCLC are usually acquired during life rather than inherited. Acquired mutations in lung cells often result from exposure to factors in the environment, such as cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco smoke. But some gene changes may just be random events that sometimes happen inside a cell, without having an outside cause.

Acquired changes in certain genes, such as the TP53 and RB1 tumor suppressor genes, are thought to be important in the development of small cell lung cancer. Changes in these and other genes may also make some lung cancers more likely to grow and spread than others. Not all lung cancers share the same gene changes, so there are undoubtedly changes in other genes that have not yet been found.

Can Small Cell Lung Cancer Be Prevented ?

Not all lung cancers can be prevented. But there are things you can do that might lower your risk, such as changing the risk factors that you can control.

Stay away from tobacco

The best way to reduce your risk of lung cancer is not to smoke and to avoid breathing in other people’s smoke.

If you stop smoking before a cancer develops, your damaged lung tissue gradually starts to repair itself. No matter what your age or how long you’ve smoked, quitting may lower your risk of lung cancer and help you live longer.

Avoid radon

Radon is an important cause of lung cancer. You can reduce your exposure to radon by having your home tested and treated, if needed.

Avoid or limit exposure to cancer-causing chemicals

Avoiding exposure to known cancer-causing chemicals, in the workplace and elsewhere, might also be helpful. People working where these exposures are common should try to keep exposure to a minimum when possible.

Eat a healthy diet

A healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables may also help reduce your risk of lung cancer. Some evidence suggests that a diet high in fruits and vegetables may help protect against lung cancer in both smokers and non-smokers. But any positive effect of fruits and vegetables on lung cancer risk would be much less than the increased risk from smoking.

Trying to reduce the risk of lung cancer in current or former smokers by giving them high doses of vitamins or vitamin-like drugs has not been successful so far. In fact, some studies have found that supplements of beta-carotene, a nutrient related to vitamin A, appear to increase the rate of lung cancer in these people.

Some people who get lung cancer do not have any clear risk factors. Although we know how to prevent most lung cancers, at this time we don’t know how to prevent all of them.

Signs and Symptoms of Small Cell Lung Cancer

Most lung cancers do not cause any symptoms until they have spread, but some people with early lung cancer do have symptoms. If you go to your doctor when you first notice symptoms, your cancer might be diagnosed at an earlier stage, when treatment is more likely to be effective.

Most of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by something other than lung cancer. Still, if you have any of these problems, it’s important to see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed. The most common symptoms of lung cancer are:

  • A cough that does not go away or gets worse
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored sputum (spit or phlegm)
  • Chest pain that is often worse with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that don’t go away or keep coming back
  • New onset of wheezing

When lung cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it may cause:

  • Bone pain (like pain in the back or hips)
  • Nervous system changes (such as headache, weakness or numbness of an arm or leg, dizziness, balance problems, or seizures), from cancer spread to the brain
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), from cancer spread to the liver
  • Lumps near the surface of the body, due to cancer spreading to the skin or to lymph nodes (collection of immune system cells) such as those in the neck or above the collarbone

Some lung cancers can cause syndromes, which are groups of specific symptoms.

Horner syndrome

Cancers of the upper part of the lungs are sometimes called Pancoast tumors. These tumors are more likely to be non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) than small cell lung cancer (SCLC).

Pancoast tumors can affect certain nerves to the eye and part of the face, causing a group of symptoms called Horner syndrome:

  • Drooping or weakness of one eyelid
  • A smaller pupil (dark part in the center of the eye) in the same eye
  • Reduced or absent sweating on the same side of the face

Pancoast tumors can also sometimes cause severe shoulder pain.

Superior vena cava syndrome

The superior vena cava is a large vein that carries blood from the head and arms back to the heart. It passes next to the upper part of the right lung and the lymph nodes inside the chest. Tumors in this area can press on the superior vena cava, which can cause the blood to back up in the veins. This can lead to swelling in the face, neck, arms, and upper chest (sometimes with a bluish-red skin color). It can also cause headaches, dizziness, and a change in consciousness if it affects the brain. While superior vena cava syndrome can develop gradually over time, in some cases it can become life-threatening, and needs to be treated right away.

Paraneoplastic syndromes

Some lung cancers make hormone-like substances that enter the bloodstream and cause problems with distant tissues and organs, even though the cancer has not spread to those tissues or organs. These problems are called paraneoplastic syndromes. Sometimes these syndromes may be the first symptoms of lung cancer. Because the symptoms affect other organs, patients and their doctors may first suspect that a disease other than lung cancer is causing them.

Some of the more common paraneoplastic syndromes associated with small cell lung cancer are:

SIADH (syndrome of inappropriate anti-diuretic hormone): In this condition, the cancer cells make a hormone (ADH) that causes the kidneys to retain (hold) water. This lowers salt levels in the blood. Symptoms of SIADH can include fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle weakness or cramps, nausea, vomiting, restlessness, and confusion. Without treatment, severe cases may lead to seizures and coma.
Cushing syndrome: In this condition, the cancer cells make ACTH, a hormone that makes the adrenal glands secrete cortisol. This can lead to symptoms such as weight gain, easy bruising, weakness, drowsiness, and fluid retention. Cushing syndrome can also cause high blood pressure and high blood sugar levels, or even diabetes.

Nervous system problems: Small cell lung cancer can sometimes cause the body’s immune system to attack parts of the nervous system, which can lead to problems. One example is a muscle disorder called Lambert-Eaton syndrome. In this syndrome, muscles around the hips become weak. One of the first signs may be trouble getting up from a sitting position. Later, muscles around the shoulder may become weak. A rarer problem is paraneoplastic cerebellar degeneration, which can cause loss of balance and unsteadiness in arm and leg movement, as well as trouble speaking or swallowing. Small cell lung cancer can also cause other nervous system problems, such as muscle weakness, sensation changes, vision problems, or even changes in behavior.

Again, many of these symptoms can also be caused by something other than lung cancer. Still, if you have any of these problems, it’s important to see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.

Small Cell Lung Cancer Diagnosis

Screening can find some lung cancers, but most lung cancers are found because they are causing problems. If you have possible signs or symptoms of lung cancer, see your doctor, who will examine you and may order some tests. The actual diagnosis of lung cancer is made after looking at a sample of your lung cells under a microscope.

Medical history and physical exam

  • Your doctor will ask about your medical history to learn about your symptoms and possible risk factors. You will also be examined for signs of lung cancer or other health problems.

If the results of your history and physical exam suggest you might have lung cancer, you will have tests to look for it. These could include imaging tests and/or biopsies of lung tissue.

Imaging tests to look for lung cancer

Imaging tests use x-rays, magnetic fields, sound waves, or radioactive substances to create pictures of the inside of your body. Imaging tests might be done for a number of reasons both before and after a diagnosis of lung cancer, including:

  • To look at suspicious areas that might be cancer
  • To learn if and how far cancer has spread
  • To help determine if treatment is working
  • To look for possible signs of cancer coming back after treatment

Chest x-ray

This is often the first test your doctor will do to look for any abnormal areas in the lungs. Plain x-rays of your chest can be done at imaging centers, hospitals, and even in some doctors’ offices. If the x-ray result is normal, you probably don’t have lung cancer (although some lung cancers may not show up on an x-ray). If something suspicious is seen, your doctor will likely order more tests.

Computed tomography (CT) scan

A CT scan combines many x-rays to make detailed cross-sectional images of your body.

A CT scan is more likely to show lung tumors than a routine chest x-ray. It can also show the size, shape, and position of any lung tumors and can help find enlarged lymph nodes that might contain cancer that has spread from the lung. Most people with small cell lung cancer (SCLC) will get a CT of the chest and abdomen to look at the lungs and lymph nodes, and to look for abnormal areas in the adrenal glands, liver, and other organs that might be from the spread of lung cancer. Some people will get a CT of the brain to look for cancer spread, but an MRI is more likely to be used when looking at the brain.

CT guided needle biopsy: If a suspected area of cancer is deep within your body, a CT scan can be used to guide a biopsy needle precisely into the suspected area.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan

Like CT scans, MRI scans show detailed images of soft tissues in the body. But MRI scans use radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays.

Most patients with SCLC will have an MRI scan of the brain to look for possible cancer spread, although a CT scan may be used instead. MRI may also be used to look for possible spread to the spinal cord if the patients have certain symptoms.

Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

For a PET scan, you are injected with a slightly radioactive form of sugar, which collects mainly in cancer cells. A special camera is then used to create a picture of areas of radioactivity in the body.

A PET scan can be a very important test if you appear to have early stage (or limited) SCLC. Your doctor can use this test to see if the cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other organs, which can help determine your treatment options. A PET scan can also give a better idea whether an abnormal area on a chest x-ray or CT scan might be cancer. PET scans are also useful if your doctor thinks the cancer may have spread but doesn’t know where.

PET/CT scan: Some machines can do both a PET scan and a CT scan at the same time. This lets the doctor compare areas of higher radioactivity on the PET scan with the more detailed appearance of that area on the CT scan. For people with SCLC, PET/CT scans are used more often than PET scans alone.

Bone scan

A bone scan can help show if a cancer has spread to the bones. This test is done mainly when there is reason to think the cancer may have spread to the bones (because of symptoms such as bone pain) and other test results aren’t clear.

For this test, you are injected with a slightly radioactive chemical that collects mainly in abnormal areas of bone. A special camera is then used to create a picture of areas of radioactivity in the body..

PET scans can also usually show if the cancer has spread to the bones, so you usually won’t need a bone scan if a PET scan has already been done.

Tests to diagnose lung cancer

Symptoms and the results of imaging tests might suggest that a person has lung cancer, but the actual diagnosis is made by looking at cells from your lung with a microscope.

The cells can be taken from lung secretions (sputum or phlegm), fluid removed from the area around the lung (thoracentesis), or from a suspicious area (biopsy). The choice of which test(s) to use depends on the situation.

Sputum cytology

For this test, a sample of sputum (mucus you cough up from the lungs) is looked at under a microscope to see if it has cancer cells. The best way to do this is to get early morning samples from you 3 days in a row. This test is more likely to help find cancers that start in the major airways of the lung, such as most small cell lung cancers and squamous cell lung cancers. It may not be as helpful for finding other types of lung cancer.

Thoracentesis

If fluid has built up around your lungs (called a pleural effusion), doctors can use thoracentesis to relieve symptoms and to see if it is caused by cancer spreading to the lining of the lungs (pleura). The buildup might also be caused by other conditions, such as heart failure or an infection.

For this procedure, the skin is numbed and a hollow needle is inserted between the ribs to drain the fluid. (In a similar test called pericardiocentesis, fluid is removed from within the sac around the heart.) A microscope is used to check the fluid for cancer cells. Chemical tests of the fluid are also sometimes useful in telling a malignant (cancerous) pleural effusion from one that is not.

If a malignant pleural effusion has been diagnosed, thoracentesis may be repeated to remove more fluid. Fluid buildup can keep the lungs from filling with air, so thoracentesis can help a person breathe better.

Needle biopsy

Doctors can often use a hollow needle to get a small sample from a suspicious area (mass).

In a fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy, the doctor uses a syringe with a very thin, hollow needle to withdraw (aspirate) cells and small fragments of tissue.
In a core biopsy, a larger needle is used to remove one or more small cores of tissue. Samples from core biopsies are larger than FNA biopsies, so they are often preferred.

An advantage of needle biopsies is that they don’t require a surgical incision, but in some cases they might not provide enough of a sample to make a diagnosis.

Transthoracic needle biopsy: If the suspected tumor is in the outer part of the lungs, the biopsy needle can be inserted through the skin on the chest wall. The area where the needle is to be inserted may be numbed with local anesthesia first. The doctor then guides the needle into the area while looking at the lungs with either fluoroscopy (which is like an x-ray, but the image is shown on a screen rather than on film) or CT scans. Unlike fluoroscopy, CT doesn’t give a constant picture, so the needle is inserted toward the mass, a CT image is taken, and the direction of the needle is guided based on the image. This is repeated a few times until the needle is within the mass.

A possible complication of this procedure is that air may leak out of the lung at the biopsy site and into the space between the lung and the chest wall. This is called a pneumothorax. It can cause part of the lung to collapse and could cause trouble breathing. If the air leak is small, it often gets better without any treatment. Larger air leaks are treated by putting a small tube into the chest space and sucking out the air over a day or two, after which it usually heals on its own.

Other approaches to needle biopsies: An FNA biopsy may also be done to check for cancer in the lymph nodes between the lungs:

Transtracheal FNA or transbronchial FNA is done by passing the needle through the wall of the trachea (windpipe) or bronchi (the large airways leading into the lungs) during bronchoscopy or endobronchial ultrasound (described below).
Some patients have an FNA biopsy done during endoscopic esophageal ultrasound (described below) by passing the needle through the wall of the esophagus.

Bronchoscopy

Bronchoscopy can help the doctor find some tumors or blockages in the larger airways of the lungs. It may be used to find a lung tumor or to take a sample of a tumor to see if it is cancer.

For this exam, a lighted, flexible fiber-optic tube (called a bronchoscope) is passed through the mouth or nose and down into the windpipe and bronchi. The mouth and throat are sprayed first with a numbing medicine. You may also be given medicine through an intravenous (IV) line to make you feel relaxed.

Small instruments can be passed down the bronchoscope to take biopsy samples. The doctor can also sample cells that line the airways by using a small brush (bronchial brushing) or by rinsing the airways with sterile saltwater (bronchial washing). These tissue and cell samples are then looked at under a microscope.
Tests to find lung cancer spread

If lung cancer has been found, it’s often important to know if it has spread to the lymph nodes in the space between the lungs (mediastinum) or other nearby areas. This can affect a person’s treatment options.

Several types of tests might be done to look for cancer spread if surgery could be an option for treatment, but this is not often the case for small cell lung cancer. These tests are used more often for non-small cell lung cancer.

Endobronchial ultrasound

Ultrasound is a type of imaging test that uses sound waves to create pictures of the inside of your body. For this test, a small, microphone-like instrument called a transducer gives off sound waves and picks up the echoes as they bounce off body tissues. The echoes are converted by a computer into an image on a computer screen.

For endobronchial ultrasound, a bronchoscope is fitted with an ultrasound transducer at its tip and is passed down into the windpipe. This is done with numbing medicine (local anesthesia) and light sedation.

The transducer can be pointed in different directions to look at lymph nodes and other structures in the mediastinum (the area between the lungs). If suspicious areas such as enlarged lymph nodes are seen on the ultrasound, a hollow needle can be passed through the bronchoscope to get biopsy samples of them. The samples are then sent to a lab to be looked at with a microscope.

Endoscopic esophageal ultrasound

This test is like endobronchial ultrasound, except the doctor passes an endoscope (a lighted, flexible scope) down the throat and into the esophagus (the tube connecting the throat to the stomach). This is done with numbing medicine (local anesthesia) and light sedation.

The esophagus is just behind the windpipe and is close to some lymph nodes inside the chest to which lung cancer may spread. As with endobronchial ultrasound, the transducer can be pointed in different directions to look at lymph nodes and other structures inside the chest that might contain lung cancer. If enlarged lymph nodes are seen on the ultrasound, a hollow needle can be passed through the endoscope to get biopsy samples of them. The samples are then sent to a lab to be looked at under a microscope.

Mediastinoscopy and mediastinotomy

These procedures may be done to look more directly at and get samples from the structures in the mediastinum (the area between the lungs). They are done in an operating room by a surgeon while you are under general anesthesia (in a deep sleep). The main difference between the two is in the location and size of the incision.

Mediastinoscopy: A small cut is made in the front of the neck and a thin, hollow, lighted tube is inserted behind the sternum (breast bone) and in front of the windpipe to look at the area. Instruments can be passed through this tube to take tissue samples from the lymph nodes along the windpipe and the major bronchial tube areas. Looking at the samples under a microscope can show if they contain cancer cells.

Mediastinotomy: The surgeon makes a slightly larger incision (usually about 2 inches long) between the second and third ribs next to the breast bone. This lets the surgeon reach some lymph nodes that cannot be reached by mediastinoscopy.
Thoracoscopy

This procedure can be done to find out if cancer has spread to the spaces between the lungs and the chest wall, or to the linings of these spaces (called pleura). It can also be used to sample tumors on the outer parts of the lungs as well as nearby lymph nodes and fluid, and to assess whether a tumor is growing into nearby tissues or organs. This procedure is not often done just to diagnose lung cancer, unless other tests such as needle biopsies are unable to get enough samples for the diagnosis.

Thoracoscopy is done in an operating room while you are under general anesthesia (in a deep sleep). A small cut (incision) is made in the side of the chest wall. (Sometimes more than one cut is made.) The doctor then puts a thin, lighted tube with a small video camera on the end through the incision to view the space between the lungs and the chest wall. Using this, the doctor can see possible cancer deposits on the lining of the lung or chest wall and remove small pieces of the tissue to be looked at under the microscope. (When certain areas can’t be reached with thoracoscopy, the surgeon may need to make a larger incision in the chest wall, known as a thoracotomy.)

Thoracoscopy can also be used as part of the treatment to remove part of a lung in some early-stage lung cancers. This type of operation, known as video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS), is described in more detail in Surgery for Small Cell Lung Cancer.

Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy

These tests look for spread of the cancer into the bone marrow. Bone marrow is the soft, inner part of certain bones where new blood cells are made.

The two tests are usually done at the same time. The samples are most often taken from the back of the pelvic (hip) bone.

In bone marrow aspiration, you lie on a table (either on your side or on your belly). The skin over the hip is cleaned. Then the skin and the surface of the bone are numbed with local anesthetic, which may cause a brief stinging or burning sensation. A thin, hollow needle is then inserted into the bone, and a syringe is used to suck out a small amount of liquid bone marrow. Even with the anesthetic, most people still have some brief pain when the marrow is removed.

A bone marrow biopsy is usually done just after the aspiration. A small piece of bone and marrow is removed with a slightly larger needle that is pushed down into the bone. The biopsy will likely also cause some brief pain.

Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy are sometimes done in patients thought to have early (limited) stage SCLC but who have blood test results suggesting the cancer might have reached the bone marrow. In recent years, PET scans have been used more often for staging, so these tests are now rarely done for SCLC.

Lab tests of biopsy and other samples

Samples that have been collected during biopsies or other tests are sent to a pathology lab. A pathologist, a doctor who uses lab tests to diagnose diseases such as cancer, will look at the samples under a microscope and may do other special tests to help better classify the cancer. (Cancers from other organs can spread to the lungs. It’s very important to find out where the cancer started, because treatment is different depending on the type of cancer.)

The results of these tests are described in a pathology report, which is usually available within about a week. If you have any questions about your pathology results or any diagnostic tests, talk to your doctor.

Blood tests

Blood tests are not used to diagnose lung cancer, but they can help to get a sense of a person’s overall health. For example, they can be used to help tell if a person is healthy enough to have surgery.

A complete blood count (CBC) determines whether your blood has normal numbers of different types of blood cells. For example, it can show if you are anemic (have a low number of red blood cells), if you could have trouble with bleeding (due to a low number of blood platelets), or if you are at increased risk for infections (due to a low number of white blood cells). This test will be repeated regularly if you are treated with chemotherapy, because these drugs can affect blood-forming cells of the bone marrow.

Blood chemistry tests can help spot abnormalities in some of your organs, such as the liver or kidneys. For example, if cancer has spread to the bones, it may cause higher than normal levels of calcium and alkaline phosphatase.
Lung function tests

Lung (or pulmonary) function tests (PFTs) may be done after lung cancer is diagnosed to see how well your lungs are working. They are generally only needed if surgery might be an option in treating the cancer, which is rare in small cell lung cancer. Surgery to remove lung cancer requires removing part or all of a lung, so it’s important to know how well the lungs are working beforehand.

There are different types of PFTs, but they all basically have you breathe in and out through a tube that is connected to a machine that measures airflow.

Small Cell Lung Cancer Stages

The stage of a cancer describes how far it has spread. The stage is one of the most important factors in deciding how to treat the cancer and determining how successful treatment might be.

Limited versus extensive stage

For treatment purposes, most doctors use a 2-stage system that divides small cell lung cancer into limited stage and extensive stage. This helps determine if a person might benefit from more aggressive treatments such as chemotherapy combined with radiation therapy to try to cure the cancer (for limited stage cancer), or whether chemotherapy alone is likely to be a better option (for extensive stage cancer).

Limited stage

This means that the cancer is only on one side of the chest and can be treated with a single radiation field. This generally includes cancers that are only in one lung (unless tumors are widespread throughout the lung), and that might have also reached the lymph nodes on the same side of the chest.

Lymph nodes above the collarbone (called supraclavicular nodes) can be affected in limited stage as long as they are on the same side of the chest as the cancer. Some doctors also include lymph nodes at the center of the chest (mediastinal lymph nodes) even when they are closer to the other side of the chest.

What is important is that the cancer is confined to an area that is small enough to be treated with radiation therapy in one “port.” Only about 1 out of 3 people with small cell lung cancer have limited stage cancer when it is first found.

Extensive stage

This describes cancers that have spread widely throughout the lung, to the other lung, to lymph nodes on the other side of the chest, or to other parts of the body (including the bone marrow). Many doctors consider small cell lung cancer that has spread to the fluid around the lung to be extensive stage as well. About 2 out of 3 people with small cell lung cancer have extensive disease when their cancer is first found.

The TNM staging system

A more formal system to describe the growth and spread of lung cancer is the American Joint Committee on Cancer TNM staging system, which is based on:

  • The size of the main (primary) tumor (T) and whether it has grown into nearby areas.
  • Whether the cancer has spread to nearby (regional) lymph nodes (N). Lymph nodes are small bean-shaped collections of immune cells to which cancers often spread before going to other parts of the body.
  • Whether the cancer has spread (metastasized) (M) to other organs of the body. (The most common sites are the brain, bones, adrenal glands, liver, kidneys, and the other lung.)

Numbers or letters appear after T, N, and M to provide more details about each of these factors. Higher numbers mean the cancer is more advanced. Once the T, N, and M categories have been determined, this information is combined in a process called stage grouping, to assign an overall stage.

Details of the TNM staging system

The TNM staging system is complex and can be hard for patients (and even some doctors) to understand. If you have any questions about the stage of your cancer, ask your doctor to explain it to you.

T categories for lung cancer

TX: The main (primary) tumor can’t be assessed, or cancer cells were seen on sputum cytology or bronchial washing but no tumor can be found.

T0: There is no evidence of a primary tumor.

Tis: Cancer is found only in the top layers of cells lining the air passages. It has not grown into deeper lung tissues. This is also known as carcinoma in situ.

T1: The tumor is no larger than 3 centimeters (cm)—slightly less than 1¼ inches—across, has not reached the membranes that surround the lungs (visceral pleura), and does not affect the main branches of the bronchi.

If the tumor is 2 cm (about 4/5 of an inch) or less across, it is called T1a. If the tumor is larger than 2 cm but not larger than 3 cm across, it is called T1b.

T2: The tumor has 1 or more of the following features:

It is larger than 3 cm across but not larger than 7 cm.
It involves a main bronchus, but is not closer than 2 cm (about ¾ inch) to the carina (the point where the windpipe splits into the left and right main bronchi).
It has grown into the membranes that surround the lungs (visceral pleura).
The tumor partially clogs the airways, but this has not caused the entire lung to collapse or develop pneumonia.

If the tumor is 5 cm or less across, it is called T2a. If the tumor is larger than 5 cm across (but not larger than 7 cm), it is called T2b.

T3: The tumor has 1 or more of the following features:

It is larger than 7 cm across.
It has grown into the chest wall, the breathing muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen (diaphragm), the membranes surrounding the space between the two lungs (mediastinal pleura), or membranes of the sac surrounding the heart (parietal pericardium).
It has grown into a main bronchus and is closer than 2 cm (about ¾ inch) to the carina, but it does not involve the carina itself.
It has grown into the airways enough to cause an entire lung to collapse or to cause pneumonia in the entire lung.
Two or more separate tumor nodules are present in the same lobe of a lung

T4: The cancer has 1 or more of the following features:

A tumor of any size has grown into the space between the lungs (mediastinum), the heart, the large blood vessels near the heart (such as the aorta), the windpipe (trachea), the tube connecting the throat to the stomach (esophagus), the backbone, or the carina.
Two or more separate tumor nodules are present in different lobes of the same lung.

N categories for lung cancer

NX: Nearby lymph nodes cannot be assessed.

N0: There is no spread to nearby lymph nodes.

N1: The cancer has spread to lymph nodes within the lung and/or around the area where the bronchus enters the lung (hilar lymph nodes). Affected lymph nodes are on the same side as the primary tumor.

N2: The cancer has spread to lymph nodes around the carina (the point where the windpipe splits into the left and right bronchi) or in the space between the lungs (mediastinum). Affected lymph nodes are on the same side as the primary tumor.

N3: The cancer has spread to lymph nodes near the collarbone on either side, and/or spread to hilar or mediastinal lymph nodes on the side opposite the primary tumor.

M categories for lung cancer

M0: No spread to distant organs or areas. This includes the other lung, lymph nodes further away than those mentioned in the N stages above, and other organs or tissues such as the liver, bones, or brain.

M1a: Any of the following:

The cancer has spread to the other lung.
The cancer has spread as nodules (small lumps) in the pleura (the lining of the lung).
Cancer cells are found in the fluid around the lung (called a malignant pleural effusion).
Cancer cells are found in the fluid around the heart (called a malignant pericardial effusion).

M1b: The cancer has spread to distant lymph nodes or to other organs such as the liver, bones, or brain.
Stage grouping for lung cancer

Once the T, N, and M categories have been assigned, this information is combined to assign an overall stage of 0, I, II, III, or IV. This process is called stage grouping. Some stages are subdivided into A and B. The stages identify cancers that have a similar outlook (prognosis). Patients with lower stage numbers tend to have a better outlook.

Occult (hidden) cancer

TX, N0, M0: Cancer cells are seen in a sample of sputum or other lung fluids, but the cancer isn’t found with other tests, so its location can’t be determined.

Stage 0

Tis, N0, M0: The cancer is found only in the top layers of cells lining the air passages. It has not invaded deeper into other lung tissues and has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage IA

T1a/T1b, N0, M0: The cancer is no larger than 3 cm across, has not reached the membranes that surround the lungs, and does not affect the main branches of the bronchi. It has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage IB

T2a, N0, M0: The cancer has 1 or more of the following features:

The main tumor is between larger than 3 cm across but not larger than 5 cm.
The tumor has grown into a main bronchus, but is not within 2 cm of the carina (and it is not larger than 5 cm).
The tumor has grown into the visceral pleura (the membranes surrounding the lungs) and is not larger than 5 cm.
The tumor is partially clogging the airways (and is not larger than 5 cm).

The cancer has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage IIA

There are 3 main combinations of categories that make up this stage.

T1a/T1b, N1, M0: The cancer is no larger than 3 cm across, has not grown into the membranes that surround the lungs, and does not affect the main branches of the bronchi. It has spread to lymph nodes within the lung and/or around the area where the bronchus enters the lung (hilar lymph nodes). These lymph nodes are on the same side as the cancer. It has not spread to distant sites.

OR

T2a, N1, M0: The cancer has 1 or more of the following features:

  • The main tumor is larger than 3 cm across but not larger than 5 cm.
  • The tumor has grown into a main bronchus, but is not within 2 cm of the carina (and it is not larger than 5 cm).
  • The tumor has grown into the visceral pleura (the membranes surrounding the lungs) and is not larger than 5 cm.
  • The tumor is partially clogging the airways (and is not larger than 5 cm).

The cancer has also spread to lymph nodes within the lung and/or around the area where the bronchus enters the lung (hilar lymph nodes). These lymph nodes are on the same side as the cancer. It has not spread to distant sites.

OR

T2b, N0, M0: The cancer has 1 or more of the following features:

  • The main tumor is larger than 5 cm across but not larger than 7 cm.
  • The tumor has grown into a main bronchus, but is not within 2 cm of the carina (and it is between 5 and 7 cm across).
  • The tumor has grown into the visceral pleura (the membranes surrounding the lungs) and is between 5 and 7 cm across.
  • The tumor is partially clogging the airways (and is between 5 and 7 cm across).
  • The cancer has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage IIB

There are 2 combinations of categories that make up this stage.

T2b, N1, M0: The cancer has 1 or more of the following features:

  • The main tumor is larger than 5 cm across but not larger than 7 cm.
  • The tumor has grown into a main bronchus, but is not within 2 cm of the carina (and it is between 5 and 7 cm across).
  • The tumor has grown into the visceral pleura (the membranes surrounding the lungs) and is between 5 and 7 cm across.
  • The cancer is partially clogging the airways (and is between 5 and 7 cm across).

It has also spread to lymph nodes within the lung and/or around the area where the bronchus enters the lung (hilar lymph nodes). These lymph nodes are on the same side as the cancer. It has not spread to distant sites.

OR

T3, N0, M0: The main tumor has 1 or more of the following features:

  • It is larger than 7 cm across.
  • It has grown into the chest wall, the breathing muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen (diaphragm), the membranes surrounding the space between the lungs (mediastinal pleura), or membranes of the sac surrounding the heart (parietal pericardium).
  • It invades a main bronchus and is closer than 2 cm (about ¾ inch) to the carina, but it does not involve the carina itself.
  • It has grown into the airways enough to cause an entire lung to collapse or to cause pneumonia in the entire lung.
  • Two or more separate tumor nodules are present in the same lobe of a lung.

The cancer has not spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage IIIA

Three main category combinations make up this stage.

T1 to T3, N2, M0: The main tumor can be any size. It has not grown into the space between the lungs (mediastinum), the heart, the large blood vessels near the heart (such as the aorta), the windpipe (trachea), the tube connecting the throat to the stomach (esophagus), the backbone, or the carina. It has not spread to different lobes of the same lung.

The cancer has spread to lymph nodes around the carina (the point where the windpipe splits into the left and right bronchi) or in the space between the lungs (mediastinum). These lymph nodes are on the same side as the main lung tumor. The cancer has not spread to distant sites.

OR

T3, N1, M0: The cancer has 1 or more of the following features:

  • It is larger than 7 cm across.
  • It has grown into the chest wall, the breathing muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen (diaphragm), the membranes surrounding the space between the lungs (mediastinal pleura), or membranes of the sac surrounding the heart (parietal pericardium).
  • It invades a main bronchus and is closer than 2 cm to the carina, but it does not involve the carina itself.
  • Two or more separate tumor nodules are present in the same lobe of a lung
  • It has grown into the airways enough to cause an entire lung to collapse or to cause pneumonia in the entire lung.

The cancer has also spread to lymph nodes within the lung and/or around the area where the bronchus enters the lung (hilar lymph nodes). These lymph nodes are on the same side as the cancer. It has not spread to distant sites.

OR

T4, N0 or N1, M0: The cancer has 1 or more of the following features:

  • A tumor of any size has grown into the space between the lungs (mediastinum), the heart, the large blood vessels near the heart (such as the aorta), the windpipe (trachea), the tube connecting the throat to the stomach (esophagus), the backbone, or the carina.
  • Two or more separate tumor nodules are present in different lobes of the same lung.

It may or may not have spread to lymph nodes within the lung and/or around the area where the bronchus enters the lung (hilar lymph nodes). Any affected lymph nodes are on the same side as the cancer. It has not spread to distant sites.

Stage IIIB

Two category combinations make up this stage.

Any T, N3, M0: The cancer can be of any size. It may or may not have grown into nearby structures or caused pneumonia or lung collapse. It has spread to lymph nodes near the collarbone on either side, and/or has spread to hilar or mediastinal lymph nodes on the side opposite the primary tumor. The cancer has not spread to distant sites.

OR

T4, N2, M0: The cancer has 1 or more of the following features:

  • A tumor of any size has grown into the space between the lungs (mediastinum), the heart, the large blood vessels near the heart (such as the aorta), the windpipe (trachea), the tube connecting the throat to the stomach (esophagus), the backbone, or the carina.
  • Two or more separate tumor nodules are present in different lobes of the same lung.

The cancer has also spread to lymph nodes around the carina (the point where the windpipe splits into the left and right bronchi) or in the space between the lungs (mediastinum). Affected lymph nodes are on the same side as the main lung tumor. It has not spread to distant sites.

Stage IV

Two combinations of categories make up this stage.

Any T, any N, M1a: The cancer can be any size and may or may not have grown into nearby structures or reached nearby lymph nodes. In addition, any of the following is true:

  • The cancer has spread to the other lung.
  • The cancer has spread as nodules (small lumps) in the pleura (the lining of the lung).
  • Cancer cells are found in the fluid around the lung (called a malignant pleural effusion).
  • Cancer cells are found in the fluid around the heart (called a malignant pericardial effusion).

OR

Any T, any N, M1b: The cancer can be any size and may or may not have grown into nearby structures or reached nearby lymph nodes. It has spread to distant lymph nodes or to other organs such as the liver, bones, or brain.

Small Cell Lung Cancer Survival Rates, by Stage

Survival rates tell you what portion of people with the same type and stage of cancer are still alive a certain amount of time (usually 5 years) after they were diagnosed. These numbers can’t tell you how long you will live, but they may help give you a better understanding about how likely it is that your treatment will be successful. Some people will want to know the survival rates for their cancer type and stage, and some people won’t. If you don’t want to know, you don’t have to.

What is a 5-year survival rate ?

Statistics on the outlook for a certain type and stage of cancer are often given as 5-year survival rates, but many people live longer – often much longer – than 5 years. The 5-year survival rate is the percentage of people who live at least 5 years after being diagnosed with cancer. For example, a 5-year survival rate of 50% means that an estimated 50 out of 100 people who have that cancer are still alive 5 years after being diagnosed. Keep in mind, however, that many of these people live much longer than 5 years after diagnosis.

Relative survival rates are a more accurate way to estimate the effect of cancer on survival. These rates compare people with cancer to people in the overall population. For example, if the 5-year relative survival rate for a specific type and stage of cancer is 50%, it means that people who have that cancer are, on average, about 50% as likely as people who don’t have that cancer to live for at least 5 years after being diagnosed.

But remember, survival rates are estimates – your outlook can vary based on a number of factors specific to you.
Survival rates don’t tell the whole story

Survival rates are often based on previous outcomes of large numbers of people who had the disease, but they can’t predict what will happen in any particular person’s case. There are a number of limitations to keep in mind:

  • The numbers below are among the most current available. But to get 5-year survival rates, doctors have to look at people who were treated at least 5 years ago. As treatments are improving over time, people who are now being diagnosed with small cell lung cancer might have a better outlook than these statistics show.
  • These statistics are based on the stage of the cancer when it was first diagnosed. They do not apply to cancers that later come back or spread, for example.
  • The outlook for people with small cell lung cancer varies by the stage (extent) of the cancer – in general, the survival rates are higher for people with earlier stage cancers. But other factors can affect a person’s outlook, such as a person’s age and overall health, and how well the cancer responds to treatment. The outlook for each person is specific to his or her circumstances.

Your doctor can tell you how these numbers may apply to you, as he or she is familiar with your particular situation.

Survival rates for small cell lung cancer, by stage

The numbers below are relative survival rates calculated from the National Cancer Institute’s SEER database, based on people who were diagnosed with small cell lung cancer between 1988 and 2001.

These survival rates are based on the TNM staging system in use at the time, which has since been modified slightly for the latest version. Because of this, the survival numbers may be slightly different for the latest staging system.

  • The 5-year relative survival rate for people with stage I small cell lung cancer is about 31%.
  • For stage II small cell lung cancer, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 19%.
  • The 5-year relative survival rate for stage III small cell lung cancer is about 8%.
  • Small cell lung cancer that has spread to other parts of the body is often hard to treat. Stage IV small cell lung cancer has a relative 5-year survival rate of about 2%. Still, there are often treatment options available for people with this stage of cancer.

Remember, these survival rates are only estimates – they can’t predict what will happen to any individual person. These statistics can be confusing and may lead you to have more questions. Talk to your doctor to better understand your situation.

Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment

If you’ve been diagnosed with small cell lung cancer, your cancer care team will discuss your treatment options with you. It’s important that you think carefully about your choices. You will want to weigh the benefits of each treatment option against the possible risks and side effects.

Which treatments are used for small cell lung cancer ?

Depending on the stage of the cancer and other factors, the main treatment options for people with small cell lung cancer include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgery

Palliative treatments can also be used to help with symptoms.

Sometimes, more than one of type of treatment is used. If you have small cell lung cancer, you will probably get chemotherapy if you are healthy enough. If you have limited stage disease, radiation therapy and – rarely – surgery may be options as well.

What types of doctors treat small cell lung cancer ?

You may have different types of doctors on your treatment team, depending on the stage of your cancer and your treatment options. These doctors could include:

  • A medical oncologist: a doctor who treats cancer with medicines such as chemotherapy
  • A pulmonologist: a doctor who specializes in medical treatment of diseases of the lungs
  • A radiation oncologist: a doctor who treats cancer with radiation therapy
  • A thoracic surgeon: a doctor who treats diseases in the lungs and chest with surgery

You might have many other specialists on your treatment team as well, including physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, respiratory therapists, nutrition specialists, social workers, and other health professionals.

Making treatment decisions

It’s important to discuss all of your treatment options, including their goals and possible side effects, with your doctors to help make the decision that best fits your needs. It’s also very important to ask questions if there is anything you’re not sure about. See What should you ask your doctor about small cell lung cancer? for ideas.

Getting a second opinion

You may also want to get a second opinion. This can give you more information and help you feel more certain about the treatment plan you choose. If you aren’t sure where to go for a second opinion, ask your doctor for help.

Thinking about taking part in a clinical trial

Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that are done to get a closer look at promising new treatments or procedures. Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the art cancer treatment. Sometimes they may be the only way to get access to newer treatments. They are also the best way for doctors to learn better methods to treat cancer. Still, they are not right for everyone.

If you would like to learn more about clinical trials that might be right for you, start by asking your doctor if your clinic or hospital conducts clinical trials.

Considering complementary and alternative methods

You may hear about complementary or alternative methods that your doctor hasn’t mentioned to treat your cancer or relieve symptoms. These methods can include vitamins, herbs, and special diets, or other methods such as acupuncture or massage, to name a few.

Complementary methods refer to treatments that are used along with your regular medical care. Alternative treatments are used instead of a doctor’s medical treatment. Although some of these methods might be helpful in relieving symptoms or helping you feel better, many have not been proven to work. Some might even be dangerous.

As you consider your options, look for “red flags” that might suggest fraud. Does the method promise to cure all or most cancers? Are you told not to have regular medical treatments? Is the treatment a “secret” that requires you to visit certain providers or travel to another country?

Be sure to talk to your cancer care team about any method you are thinking about using. They can help you learn what is known (or not known) about the method, which can help you make an informed decision.

Choosing to stop treatment or choosing no treatment at all

For some people, when treatments have been tried and are no longer controlling the cancer, it could be time to weigh the benefits and risks of continuing to try new treatments. Whether or not you continue treatment, there are still things you can do to help maintain or improve your quality of life.

Some people, especially if the cancer is advanced, might not want to be treated at all. There are many reasons you might decide not to get cancer treatment, but it’s important to talk this through with your doctors before you make this decision. Remember that even if you choose not to treat the cancer, you can still get supportive care to help with pain or other symptoms.

Help getting through treatment

Your cancer care team will be your first source of information and support, but there are other resources for help when you need it. Hospital- or clinic-based support services are an important part of your care. These might include nursing or social work services, financial aid, nutritional advice, rehab, or spiritual help.

Chemotherapy for Small Cell Lung Cancer

Chemotherapy (chemo) is treatment with anti-cancer drugs injected into a vein or taken by mouth. These drugs enter the bloodstream and go throughout the body, making this treatment useful for cancer anywhere in the body.

Chemo is typically part of the treatment for small cell lung cancer. This is because small cell lung cancer has usually already spread by the time it is found (even if the spread can’t be seen on imaging tests), so other treatments such as surgery or radiation therapy would not reach all areas of cancer.

  • For people with limited stage small cell lung cancer, chemo is often given along with radiation therapy. This is known as chemoradiation.
  • For people with extensive stage small cell lung cancer, chemo alone is usually the main treatment (although sometimes radiation therapy is given as well).

Some patients in poor health might not be able to tolerate intense doses of chemo. But older age by itself is not a reason to not get chemo.

Drugs used to treat small cell lung cancer

Small cell lung cancer is generally treated with combinations of chemotherapy drugs. The combinations most often used are:

  • Cisplatin and etoposide
  • Carboplatin and etoposide
  • Cisplatin and irinotecan
  • Carboplatin and irinotecan

Doctors give chemo in cycles, with a period of treatment (usually 1 to 3 days) followed by a rest period to allow your body time to recover. Each cycle generally lasts about 3 to 4 weeks, and initial treatment is typically 4 to 6 cycles.

If the cancer progresses (get worse) during treatment or returns after treatment is finished, other chemo drugs may be tried. The choice of drugs depends to some extent on how soon the cancer begins to grow again. The longer it takes for the cancer to return, the more likely it is to respond to further treatment.

If cancer returns more than 6 months after treatment, it might respond again to the same chemo drugs that were given the first time, so these can be tried again.
If the cancer comes back sooner, or if it keeps growing during treatment, further treatment with the same drugs isn’t likely to be helpful. If further chemo is given, most doctors prefer treatment with a single, different drug to help limit side effects. Topotecan, which can either be given into a vein (IV) or taken as pills, is the drug most often used, although others might also be tried.

Small cell lung cancer that progresses or comes back can be hard to treat, so taking part in a clinical trial of newer treatments might be a good option for some people.

Possible side effects of chemotherapy

Chemo drugs can cause side effects. These depend on the type and dose of drugs given and how long they are taken. Some of the more common side effects of chemo include:

  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Increased chance of infections (from having too few white blood cells)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding (from having too few blood platelets)
  • Fatigue (from having too few red blood cells)

These side effects usually go away after treatment. There are often ways to lessen these side effects. For example, drugs can help prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting.

Some drugs can have specific side effects. For example:

  • Drugs such as cisplatin and carboplatin can damage nerve endings. This is called peripheral neuropathy. It can sometimes lead to symptoms (mainly in the hands and feet) such as pain, burning or tingling sensations, sensitivity to cold or heat, or weakness. In most people this goes away or gets better after treatment is stopped, but it may last a long time in some people.
  • Cisplatin can also cause kidney damage. To help prevent this, doctors give lots of IV fluids before and after each dose of the drug is given.

Radiation Therapy for Small Cell Lung Cancer

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays (such as x-rays) or particles to kill cancer cells.

Depending on the stage of small cell lung cancer and other factors, radiation therapy might be used in several situations:

  • In limited stage small cell lung cancer, radiation therapy can be given at the same time as chemotherapy (chemo) to treat the tumor and lymph nodes in the chest. Giving chemo and radiation together is called concurrent chemoradiation. The radiation may be started with the first or second cycle of chemo.
    Radiation can also be given after the chemo is finished. This is sometimes done for patients with extensive stage disease, or it can be used for people with limited stage disease who have trouble getting chemotherapy and radiation at the same time (as an alternative to chemoradiation).
  • Small cell lung cancer often spreads to the brain. Radiation can be given to the brain to help lower the chances of problems from cancer spread there. This is called prophylactic cranial irradiation. This is most often used to treat people with limited stage small cell lung cancer, but it can also help some people with extensive stage small cell lung cancer.
  • Radiation can be used to shrink tumors to relieve (palliate) symptoms of lung cancer such as pain, bleeding, trouble swallowing, cough, shortness of breath, and problems caused by spread to other organs such as the brain.

Types of radiation therapy

The type of radiation therapy most often used to treat small cell lung cancer is called external beam radiation therapy (EBRT). It delivers radiation from outside the body and focuses it on the cancer.

Before treatments start, your radiation team will take careful measurements to find the correct angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose of radiation. This planning session, called simulation, usually includes getting imaging tests such as CT scans.

Treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is more intense. The procedure itself is painless. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, although the setup time – getting you into place for treatment – usually takes longer.

Most often, radiation as part of the initial treatment for small cell lung cancer is given once or twice daily, 5 days a week, for 3 to 7 weeks. Radiation to relieve symptoms and prophylactic cranial radiation are given for shorter periods of time, typically less than 3 weeks.

In recent years, newer EBRT techniques have been shown to help doctors treat lung cancers more accurately while lowering the radiation exposure to nearby healthy tissues. These include:

  • Three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT): 3D-CRT uses special computer programs to precisely map the location of the tumor(s). Radiation beams are shaped and aimed at the tumor(s) from several directions, which makes it less likely to damage normal tissues.
  • Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): IMRT is an advanced form of 3D therapy. It uses a computer-driven machine that moves around the patient as it delivers radiation. Along with shaping the beams and aiming them at the tumor from several angles, the intensity (strength) of the beams can be adjusted to limit the dose reaching nearby normal tissues. This technique is used most often if tumors are near important structures such as the spinal cord. Many major cancer centers now use IMRT.
  • A variation of IMRT is called volumetric modulated arc therapy (VMAT). It uses a machine that delivers radiation quickly as it rotates once around the body. Each treatment is given over just a few minutes.

Possible side effects of radiation therapy

If you are going to get radiation therapy, it’s important to ask your doctor beforehand about the possible side effects so that you know what to expect. Common side effects of radiation therapy can include:

  • Skin changes in the area being treated, which can range from mild redness to blistering and peeling
  • Hair loss (in the area where the radiation enters the body)
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss

Most of these side effects go away after treatment, but some can last a long time. When chemotherapy is given with radiation, the side effects are often worse.

Radiation therapy to the chest may damage your lungs, which might cause a cough, problems breathing, and shortness of breath. These usually improve after treatment is over, although sometimes they may not go away completely.

Your esophagus, which is in the middle of your chest, may be exposed to radiation, which could cause a sore throat and trouble swallowing during or shortly after treatment. This might make it hard to eat anything other than soft foods or liquids for a while.

Radiation therapy to large areas of the brain can sometimes cause memory loss, fatigue, headaches, trouble thinking, or reduced sexual desire. Usually these symptoms are minor compared with those caused by cancer that has spread to the brain, but they can affect your quality of life.

Surgery for Small Cell Lung Cancer

Surgery is rarely used as part of the main treatment for small cell lung cancer, as the cancer has usually already spread by the time it is found.

Occasionally (in fewer than 1 out of 20 patients), the cancer is found as only a single lung tumor, with no spread to lymph nodes or other organs. Surgery may be an option for these early-stage cancers, usually followed by additional treatment ( chemotherapy, often with radiation therapy).

If your doctor thinks the lung cancer can be treated with surgery, pulmonary function tests will be done first to see if you would still have enough healthy lung tissue left after surgery. Other tests will check the function of your heart and other organs to be sure you’re healthy enough for surgery.

Because surgery isn’t helpful for more advanced stage lung cancers, your doctor will also want to make sure the cancer hasn’t already spread to the lymph nodes between the lungs. This is often done just before surgery with mediastinoscopy or with some of the other techniques. If cancer cells are in the lymph nodes, then surgery is not likely to be helpful.

Types of lung surgery

Different operations can be used to treat small cell lung cancer:

  • Pneumonectomy: An entire lung is removed in this surgery.
  • Lobectomy: The lungs have 5 lobes (3 in the right lung and 2 in the left). In this surgery, the entire lobe containing the tumor is removed.
  • Segmentectomy or wedge resection: In these operations, only the part of the lobe with the tumor is removed.
  • Sleeve resection: A section of a large airway is removed, and the lung is reattached.

In general, lobectomy is the preferred operation for small cell lung cancer if it can be done, because it offers a better chance of removing all of the cancer than segmentectomy or wedge resection.

With any of these operations, nearby lymph nodes are also removed to look for possible spread of the cancer. These operations require general anesthesia (where you are in a deep sleep) and are usually done through a surgical incision between the ribs in the side of the chest (called a thoracotomy).

When you wake up from surgery, you will have a tube (or tubes) coming out of your chest and attached to a special canister to allow excess fluid and air to drain out. The tube(s) will be removed once the fluid drainage and air leak stop. Most people will spend about a week in the hospital after the surgery.

Possible risks and side effects of lung surgery

Surgery for lung cancer is a major operation and can have serious side effects, which is why surgery isn’t a good idea for everyone. While all surgeries carry some risks, they depend to some degree on the extent of the surgery and a person’s health beforehand.

Possible complications during and soon after surgery can include reactions to anesthesia, excess bleeding, blood clots in the legs or lungs, wound infections, and pneumonia. While it is rare, in some cases people may not survive the surgery.

Recovering from lung cancer surgery typically takes weeks to months. When the surgery is done through a thoracotomy, the surgeon must spread the ribs to get to the lung, so the area near the incision will hurt for some time after surgery. Your activity will be limited for at least a month.

If your lungs are in good condition (other than the presence of the cancer) you can usually return to normal activities after some time if a lobe or even an entire lung has been removed.

If you also have another lung disease such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis (which are common among heavy smokers), you might become short of breath with activity after surgery.

Palliative Procedures for Small Cell Lung Cancer

Palliative, or supportive care, is aimed at relieving symptoms and improving a person’s quality of life.

People with small cell lung cancer often benefit from procedures to help with problems caused by the cancer. For example, people with advanced lung cancer can be short of breath. This can be caused by many things, including fluid around the lung or an airway that is blocked by a tumor. Although treating the cancer with chemotherapy or other drugs may help with this over time, other treatments may be needed as well.

Treating an airway blocked by a tumor

Tumors can sometimes grow into the lung airways, blocking them and causing problems such as pneumonia or shortness of breath. Sometimes this is treated with radiation therapy, but other techniques can also be used.

Photodynamic therapy (PDT)

Photodynamic therapy is sometimes used to help open up airways blocked by tumors to help people breathe better.

For this technique, a light-activated drug called porfimer sodium (Photofrin) is injected into a vein. This drug collects more in cancer cells than in normal cells. After a couple of days (to give the drug time to build up in the cancer cells), a bronchoscope is passed down the throat and into the lung. This can be done with either local anesthesia (numbing the throat) and sedation, or with general anesthesia (which puts you in a deep sleep). A special laser light on the end of the bronchoscope is aimed at the tumor, which activates the drug and kills the cells. The dead cells are then removed a few days later during a bronchoscopy. This process can be repeated if needed.

Photodynamic therapy can cause swelling in the airway for a few days, which may lead to some shortness of breath, as well as coughing up blood or thick mucus. Some of this drug also collects in normal cells in the body, such as skin and eye cells. This can make you very sensitive to sunlight or strong indoor lights. Too much exposure can cause serious skin reactions (like a severe sunburn), so doctors recommend staying out of any strong light for several weeks after the injection.

Laser therapy

Lasers can sometimes be used to help open up airways blocked by tumors to help people breathe better.

You are usually asleep (under general anesthesia) for this type of treatment. The laser is on the end of a bronchoscope, which is passed down the throat and next to the tumor. The doctor then aims the laser beam at the tumor to burn it away. This treatment can usually be repeated, if needed.

Stent placement

If a lung tumor has grown into an airway and is causing problems, sometimes a bronchoscope is used to put a hard silicone or metal tube called a stent in the airway to help keep it open. This is often done after other treatments such as photodynamic therapy or laser therapy.

Treating fluid buildup in the area around the lung

Sometimes fluid can build up in the chest outside of the lungs. This is called a pleural effusion. It can press on the lungs and cause trouble breathing.

Thoracentesis

This is done to drain the fluid. For this procedure, the doctor will numb an area in the chest, and then place a hollow needle into the space between the lungs and the ribs to drain the fluid. This is often done using ultrasound to guide the needle into the fluid.

Pleurodesis

This procedure might be done to remove the fluid and keep it from coming back.

One way to do this is to make a small cut in the skin of chest wall, and place a hollow tube (called a chest tube) into the chest to remove the fluid. Then a substance is instilled into the chest through the tube that causes the linings of the lung (visceral pleura) and chest wall (parietal pleura) to stick together, sealing the space and limiting further fluid buildup. A number of substances can be used for this, such as talc, the antibiotic doxycycline, or a chemotherapy drug like bleomycin. The tube is often left in for a couple of days to drain any new fluid that might collect.

Another way to do this is to blow talc into the space around the lungs during an operation. This is done through a small incision using thoracoscopy

Catheter placement

This is another way to control the buildup of fluid. One end of the catheter (a thin, flexible tube) is placed in the chest through a small cut in the skin, and the other end is left outside the body. This is done in a doctor’s office or hospital. Once in place, the catheter can be attached to a special bottle or other device to allow the fluid to drain out on a regular basis.

Treating fluid buildup around the heart

Lung cancer can sometimes spread to the area around the heart. This can lead to fluid buildup inside the sac around the heart (called a pericardial effusion), which can press on the heart and affect how well it works.

Pericardiocentesis

In this procedure, the fluid is drained with a needle placed into the space around the heart. This is usually done using an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart) to guide the needle.

Creating a pericardial window

This procedure can be done to keep the fluid from building up again. During surgery, a piece of the sac around the heart (the pericardium) is removed to allow the fluid to drain into the chest or belly.

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