About lung cancer treatment

Treatment for lung cancer can include:

  • surgery
  • chemotherapy
  • radiotherapy
  • targeted and immunotherapy drugs.

You may have a combination of treatments. Sometimes people have different treatments one after the other to help to keep the cancer under control.

The treatment you have will depend on:

Your cancer doctor and nurse will involve you in treatment decisions, so you can talk about your choices. They can also help you if you need to make decisions about treatment.

Newer treatments are being developed. Your cancer doctor may talk to you about having treatment as part of a clinical trial.

Getting support

We understand that having treatment can be a difficult time for people. We're here to support you. If you want to talk, you can:

Surgery

If you have non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), it may be possible to remove the cancer with surgery. The type of operation depends on the stage and position of the cancer.

For some people, surgery may not be suitable. This could be because of other health problems that make surgery unsafe or make it difficult to cope with a major operation.

Surgery is rarely used to treat small cell lung cancer (SCLC), unless the cancer is small and has not spread outside the lung. Other treatments are usually more suitable for SCLC, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy alone or together (chemoradiation).

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. It is used to treat both types of lung cancer. 
  • For SCLC, chemotherapy is often the main treatment.
  • For NSCLC, chemotherapy can be used before or after surgery. 

For both types of lung cancer, chemotherapy can be given with radiotherapy. This is called chemoradiation.

Chemotherapy can also be given along with targeted or immunotherapy drugs, or on its own, to control the cancer and relieve symptoms.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy treats cancer by using high-energy x-rays. It can be used to treat both (NSCLC) and (SCLC). It may be given:

  • on its own instead of surgery, to try to cure early-stage NSCLC
  • with or after chemotherapy (chemoradiation), for both NSCLC and SCLC
  • to the head, to stop any lung cancer cells that have spread from growing into a secondary cancer in the brain. This is for people with SCLC
  • to control symptoms. This may be done if the cancer is more advanced or has spread to other parts of the body. It is called palliative radiotherapy.

Targeted therapies and immunotherapies

Targeted therapy or immunotherapy drugs are often used to treat advanced NSCLC. Immunotherapy may be given to help reduce the risk of lung cancer coming back after chemoradiation. Newer targeted and immunotherapy drugs are being developed. 

Specialised tests are done on the cancer cells to find out if certain drugs are suitable for you. 

Tumour ablation treatments

Tumour ablation treatments destroy cancer cells using heat, microwaves or laser light. They may also be used if the cancer is blocking an airway, to relieve breathlessness.

We have more information about tumour ablation treatments.

Managing symptoms and other conditions

Your care also involves having different drugs and  treatments that help relieve your symptoms.

You may see a specialist doctor or nurse for expert help with your symptoms.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our lung cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at  cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Lung cancer – Diagnosis and management. Clinical guideline 2019.

    Metastatic non-small cell lung cancer: ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. 2018.

    European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO). Early and locally advanced non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC): ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. 2017.

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr David Gilligan, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We try to make sure our information is as clear as possible. We use plain English, avoid jargon, explain any medical words, use illustrations to explain text, and make sure important points are highlighted clearly.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected. Our aims are for our information to be as clear and relevant as possible for everyone.

You can read more about how we produce our information here.