How is lung cancer treated?

Treating non-small cell lung cancer
Treating small cell lung cancer

How is non-small cell lung cancer treated?


The aim of surgery is to remove the part of the lung containing cancer or even an entire lung. If the cancer is found in one lung only – or in one lung with only lymph nodes close to the tumour involved – it may be possible to remove all the tumour by surgery. You may also have surgery to stage your cancer or to help manage your symptoms. Read more about surgery for lung cancer.

Systemic drug treatments

Systemic anticancer drug therapies are medications that spread throughout the body to treat cancer cells wherever they may be. They include chemotherapy, targeted drugs and immunotherapy. Systemic therapies are usually prescribed by a medical oncologist – a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with medication.


Chemotherapy drugs are given to slow down and control the growth of cancer. More and more, this type of therapy is tailored to each patient, based on their type of NSCL. Chemotherapy can be given before or after surgery. Sometimes it is given together with radiotherapy. This is called chemoradiation.

There are several chemotherapy drugs used to treat lung cancer. The drugs can be used on their own or in combination with each other. Chemotherapy can also be used to control symptoms. Read more about chemotherapy.

Targeted therapies

These drugs target specific genetic mutations in cancers. Different targeted therapies work in different ways. The type used for lung cancer usually works by blocking the signals that tell cancer cells to grow and divide.

Doctors can now test tissue taken from your tumour to see if your lung cancer will respond to a particular targeted therapy. This is called mutation testing. If the testing shows that these drugs are not suitable for your lung cancer, your doctor will advise you about what other treatments you can have.

Most targeted drugs are given in tablet or capsule form. Read more about targeted therapies.


Immunotherapy helps your immune system to work better to fight cancer cells. Read more about immunotherapy.


Radiotherapy can be used on its own or with other therapies to treat non-small cell lung cancer. It can also be used to control symptoms such as breathlessness or pain. Advanced radiotherapy treatments might be given to treat non-small cell lung cancer instead of surgery.

Read more about stereotactic radiotherapy for lung cancer

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) and microwave ablation (MWA)

These treatments use heat to treat very early stage lung cancers for people who can’t have surgery or don’t want to have surgery. They may also be used to relieve breathlessness if the tumour is blocking an airway. Read more about radiofrequency ablation (RFA) and microwave ablation (MWA)

Treating side-effects and symptoms

Possible side-effects and symptoms include:

  • Blocked airway
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnoea)
  • Fluid on the lungs (pleural effusion)
  • Cough
  • Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Blocked vein (superior vena cava obstruction)

Read about these lung cancer symptoms and how they’re treated. Tell your medical team if you have these or any other side-effects or symptoms. 

How is small cell lung cancer treated? 

In small cell lung cancer, treatment will depend on the stage the cancer is at (limited or extensive) and your general health.


Chemotherapy with radiotherapy is the main treatment for limited disease small cell lung cancer.

Chemotherapy alone is the main treatment for extensive small cell lung cancer – where the cancer has spread outside your lung. The treatment aims to control the cancer and help with symptoms.


External beam radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Stereotactic radiotherapy is a more precise way of giving radiotherapy. 

Radiotherapy may also be used to relieve symptoms such as pain or to shrink tumours that have spread to other parts of your body, such as your brain or bones. Sometimes, if you have responded very well to chemotherapy, radiotherapy is used to reduce the risk of the cancer spreading to your brain. This is called prophylactic cranial irradiation. Radiotherapy is used for the brain because most chemotherapy drugs cannot easily pass into the brain due to the brain’s natural protective barrier, called the blood-brain barrier.

Read more about radiotherapy.


Surgery is rarely used to treat small cell lung cancer. 

Treating metastatic cancer

If the cancer spreads to another part of your body, it is called metastatic or secondary cancer. Your cancer may be in more than one part of your body when it is first diagnosed.

If your cancer has spread it can still be treated. Treatment is usually to try to control the cancer rather than to cure it. It is often treated with chemotherapy, immunotherapy or targeted therapies. There may also be treatments available as part of a clinical trial.

For more information

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