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How Do You Treat Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer?

x-ray, small cell lung cancer, lung cancerNon-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common type of lung cancer accounting for approximately 80-85% of all lung cancer tumors.[1] Although serious, it usually spreads at a slower rate than other types of lung cancer and treatment can sometimes stop it from worsening.[2]

Types of NSCLC Tumors

There are three main types of NSCLC tumors. They are grouped together because treatment and prognosis are often similar:

  • Adenocarcinoma – approximately 40% of all lung cancers are adenocarcinomas. This type of lung cancer grows in the outer parts of the lungs and is the type of lung cancer most commonly found in women, young adults and non-smokers. Although prognosis (how long you’ll live after diagnosis) of this type of cancer varies from person to person, adenocarcinoma is more likely than other lung cancers to be found early, before it has spread.1
  • Squamous cell carcinomas – approximately 25 to 30% of all lung cancers originate in the squamous cells, the flat cells that line the airways of the lungs. This type of cancer is found in the central part of the lungs near a main bronchus (large airway) and is the type of lung cancer most often linked to a history of smoking.1
  • Large cell (undifferentiated) carcinoma – approximately 10 to 15% of all lung cancers fall into this category. Large cell lung cancer can be found in any part of the lungs. Because it has a tendency to grow and spread rapidly, this type of lung cancer is more difficult to treat than other lung cancers. Large cell neuroendocrine carcinoma, a subtype of large cell carcinoma, grows quickly and is similar in nature to small cell lung cancer.1

Treatment of Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Your doctor may choose to give you a combination of treatments, depending on the type of lung cancer you have, where it’s located and how far it has spread. The most common NSCLC treatments are listed below:2

  • Surgery – recommended for people who are in the early stages of lung cancer. During surgery your doctor may remove part or all of your lung. Other types of lung cancer surgeries involve freezing the cancer cells or using a heated probe or needle to destroy them.2
  • Radiation – kills cancer cells that are left after surgery and treats certain cancers that your doctor was unable to remove during surgery. There are 2 types of radiation treatments: either the radiation comes from a high-energy beam that’s aimed at the cancer from outside your body or it comes in the form of a radioactive substance that’s put into your body, in or near the cancer.1
  • Chemotherapy – given in pill form for you to swallow or injected through a needle that goes directly into your vein. Chemo can be given before surgery to shrink a tumor, after surgery, to kill any remaining cancer cells, along with radiation for cancers that are unable to be removed by surgery and as the main treatment for some advanced cancers or for people who are not healthy enough to withstand surgery.1
  • Targeted therapy – less harmful to normal cells than radiation and chemo. Includes drugs and antibodies that target cancer cells in very specific ways to keep them from growing and spreading.2
  • Laser and photodynamic therapy – using a laser light, special drugs that are absorbed by the cancer cells are “turned on” so they can attack and kill the cancer cells while preserving healthy tissue.2

Clinical Trials

Scientists are always working to develop new drugs and treatments that will one day eradicate lung cancer. In clinical trials, researchers methodically test drugs, medical devices and other interventions to determine if these drugs can prevent cancer in at-risk populations, extend the life of someone with advanced cancer or improve the quality of life that lung cancer often destroys.2

To find an NSCLC clinical trial near you talk to your primary care provider or visit the National Cancer Institute.


[1] American Cancer Society. Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. Last reviewed February 8, 2016.

[2] WebMD. Non-Small-Cell Lung Cancer. Last reviewed March 1, 2017.


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