Lung cancer is cancer that starts in the lungs, often in the epithelial cells, which are the cells that line the airways. If left untreated, the primary tumor in the lung can grow and invade the tissue surrounding the lung. The cancer cells can replace so many normal cells that it becomes difficult for the person to breathe. Sometimes cancer cells break off from the primary tumor and form secondary tumors in nearby sites, such as another lobe of the lung, or distant sites, such as the brain. This spread of cancer is called metastasis. When metastasis occurs, the cancer found in the new region is still considered lung cancer and is treated as such. For example, lung cancer that has spread to the liver is still considered lung cancer, not liver cancer (see Figure 4).
Several options are available to treat lung cancer, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy. When possible, surgery is the primary treatment to remove tumors that are caught early. Other types of treatment often depend on the specific type of lung cancer and a person’s overall health.
Using immunotherapy to treat lung cancer is a relatively new option, but now checkpoint inhibitors are an effective strategy for treatment. These checkpoint inhibitors work by stopping the action of a protein, PD-L1, which can prevent your immune system from attacking lung cancer cells. In addition to checkpoint inhibitors, other types of immunotherapy strategies are currently being studied in clinical trials.
This promising treatment is changing the course of lung cancer treatment. Some people with metastatic lung cancer are living longer with a better quality of life, due in part to fewer and more manageable side effects.
Your treatment plan may include a combination of several treatments or a clinical trial. Your doctor will create a specific treatment plan for your diagnosis depending on several factors, including the type and stage of your lung cancer, the location of the tumor, results of biomarker testing, your overall lung function and your general health. When discussing treatment options with your doctor, make sure you know the type of lung cancer you have, including any information about biomarkers specific to your tumor. Understanding as much as you can about your cancer will help you make more informed treatment decisions.