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Lung cancer treatment

Your choice of treatment depends on the stage of the cancer, your general health and breathing capacity and your wishes. You will need to discuss your options with your doctor.

The main treatments are surgery, radiotherapy (X-ray treatment) and chemotherapy (drug treatment). Sometimes two or even three of these treatments are used for the same cancer.

  • Non-small cell lung cancer can be treated with surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy.
  • Small cell lung cancer is usually treated with chemotherapy. Some people with cancer in one lung (limited disease) will have radiotherapy to the chest and brain (called preventive or prophylactic radiotherapy). Because it usually spreads early, surgery is not often used for this type of cancer.
  • Mesothelioma is rarely able to be removed by surgery. However, people commonly have other types of treatment, such as chemotherapy or thoracentesis (a procedure that removes fluid or air from the chest through a needle or tube), to slow down progression of the disease or to help manage symptoms.

Surgery

This involves cutting out the part of the lung where the cancer is. Sometimes a whole lung has to be removed. It's a major operation, done under a general anaesthetic so that you're unconscious while it's happening, and you need to stay in hospital to recover. Not every person with lung cancer can have this kind of surgery because of the lung damage caused by smoking, such as with emphysema.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses high-energy X-rays to kill the cancer cells. It can cure some early lung cancers, before they've spread far, it can shrink tumours, and it can relieve pain and other symptoms when the cancer can't be cured. The X-rays are carefully aimed at the cancer so they won't harm healthy cells. The treatment is often given in several sessions over a number of weeks. To make sure that the X-rays are aimed at exactly the right place each time, the person doing it (called a 'radiation therapist') marks your skin as a guide to where the rays should go.

Radiotherapy doesn't hurt. It doesn't make you radioactive either, but you may feel tired, and you may get marks on your skin like sunburn.

Chemotherapy

This is treatment with anti-cancer drugs. The drugs are usually either injected or given through a catheter, a thin tube put into a large vein. The drugs can affect the healthy cells in your body as well as cancer cells (although they have a bigger effect on the cancer cells). So they may have side effects such as making you feel sick or your hair might fall out – this is because the drugs work best on cells that are growing quickly. (It's because cancer cells are growing quickly, and won't stop growing, that they're a problem – but hair is always growing too.) Your hair will grow back, and the other side effects usually disappear after the treatment stops. In the meantime, there are things your doctor can do to help you with side effects.

Cancer Council Australia can provide more information on cancer treatments through their website at www.cancer.org.au. They also offer support for you and your loved ones via their helpline on 13 11 20.

Sources: Cancer Australia (What is lung cancer), Cancer Council Australia (Lung cancer), myDr (Lung cancer: treatment) NHS Choices, UK (Treating Lung cancer)

Last reviewed: August 2015

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