Lung Cancer

Treatment depends on a number of factors, including the type of lung cancer (non-small or small cell lung cancer); the size, location and extent of the tumor; and the general health of the patient. Many different treatments and combinations of treatments may be used to control lung cancer and improve quality of life by reducing symptoms.


Surgery is an operation to remove the cancer. The type of surgery performed depends on the location of the tumor in the lung, and the amount of surgery a patient can tolerate. An operation to remove only a small part of the lung is called a segmental or wedge resection. When the surgeon removes an entire lobe of the lung, the procedure is called a lobectomy. Pneumonectomy is the removal of an entire lung. Pleurectomy and decortication is removal of the lung's lining.

Talc pleurodesis is the removal of fluid in the chest and placement of talc to "seal" the area between the lung and the chest wall, so fluid will not accumulate again. Some tumors are inoperable — they can't be removed by surgery — because of the size or location, and some patients can't have surgery for other medical reasons.

Some types of incisions and procedures involved in lung surgery are:

  • Thoracotomy — An incision in the chest wall to remove all or a portion of lung.
  • Video-assisted Thoracoscopy (VATS) — Viewing the space around the lung through a scope and removing fluid or a portion of lung. This procedure may be used for patients with poorer lung function.
  • Sternotomy — The incision in which the sternum or breastbone is divided down the middle from top to bottom.


Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs to kill cancer cells throughout the body. Even after cancer has been removed from the lung, cancer cells may still be present in nearby tissue or elsewhere in the body. Chemotherapy may be used to control cancer growth or relieve symptoms.

Most anticancer drugs are given intravenously, which is injection directly into a vein, or by a catheter, a thin tube placed into a large vein that remains as long as needed. Some anticancer drugs are given in the form of a pill.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, involves the use of high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy is directed to a limited area and affects the cancer cells only in that area.

It may be used before surgery to shrink a tumor or after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells in the treated area. Doctors also use radiation therapy, often combined with chemotherapy, as primary treatment instead of surgery. Radiation therapy also may be used to relieve symptoms such as shortness of breath.

Radiation for lung cancer most often comes from a machine, or external radiation. Radiation also may come from an implant, a small container of radioactive material placed directly into or near the tumor called internal radiation.

Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.