Treatment for lung cancer

The main treatments for lung cancer are:

  • Surgery

  • Chemotherapy

  • Biological therapy

  • Immunotherapy

  • Radiotherapy

Your treatment will depend on the stage, grade and type of cancer cells you have. The stage looks at the size of your cancer and if it has spread from where it started.

The grade of the cancer can tell if your cancer grows quickly or slowly. You can have a low, moderate or high grade cancer.

Types of lung cancer

The are two main types of lung cancer:

  1. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)

  2. Small cell lung cancer (SCLC)

Most lung cancers are non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). There are three main types of NSCLC. These include:

  • Adenocarcinoma

  • Squamous cell carcinoma

  • Large cell carcinoma

Knowing which type you are helps your doctor decide what treatment is best for you.

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the lung. Find out more about mesothelioma.


The aim of surgery is to remove the part of the lung containing cancer. Surgery is most commonly used for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

Surgery is possible if the tumour is found in one lung or if the lymph nodes involved are close to the lung.

A lobe or a small section of the lung can be removed or even an entire lung. 

For more information, please see our Understanding Lung Cancer booklet or speak to a specialist nurse on our Cancer Nurseline Freefone 1800 200 700.


Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to cure or control cancer. Chemotherapy drugs can be given on their own or with each other (in combination). Many lung cancer patients receive a combination of two or three chemotherapy drugs.

Chemotherapy can also be given before or after radiotherapy and surgery. Chemotherapy drugs are either injected into your bloodstream or given in tablet form.

These are some chemotherapy drugs used in the treatment of lung cancer:

  • Carboplatin

  • Cisplatin

  • Docetaxel (Taxotere)

  • Etoposide (Vepesid, VP-16)

  • Gemcitabine (Gemzar)

  • Paclitaxel (Taxol)

  • Pemetrexed (Alimta)

  • Topotecan (Hycamtin)

  • Vinblastine (Velbe)

  • Vincristine (Oncovin)

  • Vinorelbine (Navelbine)

Please see our section on chemotherapy for more information.

Biological therapy

Biological therapy uses the body's immune system to treat cancer. Every patient's disease is different and doctors can now test your tumour following a biopsy to see whether it will respond to certain biological therapies.

Biological therapies are also called ‘targeted therapies’ or ‘personalised medicine’. Testing a tumour to see if it will respond to a particular biological therapy is called molecular testing. 

Molecular testing allows your doctor to find out more detailed information about your tumour such as:

  • Particular changes (mutations) in the DNA of the tumour

  • Particular proteins in the tumour

Remember molecular testing is not recommended for everyone, your doctor will explain whether it is right for you and if these drugs would be helpful for your lung cancer.  

If molecular testing shows that these drugs are not suitable for your lung cancer, your doctor will advise you about what other treatments you can have. Remember this does not mean that you are not getting the best treatment. Every patient with lung cancer is different and your doctor will advise you what drugs are best for you and your disease.

These biological therapies are commonly used to treat lung cancer:

  • Afatinib (Giotrif)

  • Alectinib (Alecensa)

  • Bevacizumab (Avastin)

  • Ceritinib (Zykadia)

  • Cetuximab (Erbitux)

  • Crizotinib (Xalkori)

  • Iressa (Gefitinib)

  • Nintedanib (Vargatef)

  • Tarceva (Eroltinib)

  • Thalidomide

Learn more about biological therapy.


Immunotherapy is a new type of cancer drug being used to treat lung cancer. It uses the patient’s own immune system to help fight the cancer cells.

There are several immunotherapy drugs in clinical trials at the moment.

For more information on immunotherapy, please see this fact sheet from the Global Lung Cancer Coalition.


Radiotherapy is the use of high-energy rays that are aimed directly at your tumour or to areas that cancer may have spread to, to kill or shrink the cancer cells. In lung cancer, external beam radiotherapy is the most common type used.

Newer types of radiotherapy are now being used for some lung cancer patients. Stereotactic radiotherapy uses smaller radiation beams than standard radiotherapy. The beams are targeted at the tumour from several different angles which combine to give a high dose of radiation to the tumour.

With stereotactic radiotherapy, smaller amounts of healthy tissue are treated compared to standard radiotherapy. Your doctor will advise you whether or not it is suitable for you.

For more information please see our radiotherapy page.

Treatment for advanced cancer

Advanced cancer means that your cancer has spread from the area where it started. If it has spread to the area around the lung, it is called local spread. It can also spread to other areas of the body including the bones and brain. This is called secondary cancer or metastatic cancer. Find out more about advanced cancer.

It is usually not possible to cure advanced cancer. Treatment is given to control the cancer and to improve your quality of life. This can be done for a long time. Treatments can involve surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and biological therapy.

You may also be seen by the palliative care team at this time. This team are there to help with any symptoms you have and to support you and your family throughout your treatment. Find out more information about palliative care

Side-effects from treatment

The type of side-effects from treatment you get will depend on the type of treatment, the dose, the duration and your own general health. Some treatments may cause symptoms such as:

  • Less resistance to infection

  • Nausea

  • Loss of appetite

  • Hair loss

Many treatments for cancer can cause fatigue. Your doctor will discuss any likely side-effects before treatment. Remember most side-effects are temporary and will eventually go away after you finish your treatment.

Clinical trials for lung cancer

If a treatment looks like it might be helpful, it is given to patients in research studies called clinical trials. Trials may be taking place at the hospital you are attending.

If you are interested in taking part, talk to your doctor. He or she can tell you if the trial would suit you or not.

Learn more about clinical trials

Next: Read more about support options for those affected by lung cancer

Date Last Reviewed: 
Tuesday, December 11, 2018