Treatments For Lung Cancer
Treatments for lung cancer depend on a combination of factors. How advanced is the cancer? Are the tumors localized or have they spread to other locations within the body (metastasized)? How is the overall health of the patient? What are the desires of the patient?
Traditionally, lung cancers treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or a combination of these. For instance, after surgery to remove a tumor, radiation therapy may be used to make sure all of the diseased cells have been destroyed. This is referred to as adjuvant therapy.
In some cases, the goal of the treatment is to halt and destroy the cancer. In other cases, obviously the more severe cases, the goal of treatment is simply to reduce the pain and discomfort of the patient.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to combat the lung cancer. Which drugs are used is determined by the specific form of the lung cancer and its stage. Sometimes referred to as cytotoxins (drugs that are toxic to cancer cells), their purpose is to disrupt the reproduction of the cancerous cells. This is generally accomplished through a combination of drugs, administered either intravenously or orally.
Traditionally, these drugs have been introduced into the bloodstream to spread throughout the body with the intent that they will eventually encounter the cancerous cells and kill them off. In other words, the drugs not only kill cancerous cells, they kill healthy cells as well. In some cases, doctors are able to specifically localize the drugs around the cancerous cells, though this is rare.
The side effects of this treatment often overwhelm the patient. Nausea, vomiting, mouth sores, loss of hair, loss of appetite… these are all common side effects of chemotherapy.
Radiation therapy is most often used in conjunction with surgery and/or chemotherapy. External beam radiation and Brachytherapy are the two primary therapies used for the treatment of lung cancer. External beam radiation therapy is often used in those cases when the health of the patient is poor and surgery isn’t an option. Brachytherapy is commonly used to relieve a blockage of large airways.
Occasionally, radiation therapy is recommended as the sole treatment option for lung cancer. Generally, this will happen in those situations when the patient is too ill to undergo surgery or withstand chemotherapy. When radiation therapy is used as the sole treatment for lung cancer, it results in the shrinking of tumors and complete remission from cancer symptoms approximately 10-15% of the time.
If lung cancer is caught in the early stages, particularly stage one non-small cell lung cancer, surgery to remove the tumor is often the preferred treatment. At this stage, the cancer is confined to the lungs, often in the form of a single tumor, and surgery can be quite effective at removing most or all of it. However, the more advanced a lung cancer becomes, the less effective surgery becomes. Once it spreads beyond the chest and metastasizes to other organs, surgery is generally ineffective and not a workable option.
Depending on the growth of the cancer and the condition of the lungs, surgery can result in the removal of part of one lobe or even the removal of an entire lung. Complications can include infection, pneumonia and excessive bleeding. The good news is that up to 40% of patients who undergo surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from their lungs are still alive five years after the surgery. Surgical removal is not a guarantee of a cure, however, since cancerous cells may already have begun to spread.
Medical experts estimate that between 10% and 35% of all lung cancers can be removed surgically.
Recently, an invasive procedure referred to as video-assisted thoracic surgery has been useful in treating patients surgically without open surgery, which eliminates many of the usual complications. A tumor smaller than 4 to 5 cm can be treated using this method, which surgeons use to operate through 2 to 4 tiny openings between the ribs while viewing the patient’s internal organs on a television monitor. Each opening is less that one inch in diameter.