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Treatment of lung cancer

Treatment of non small cell lung cancer
skin metastases of oat cell (small cell) lung cancer, before (left) and after (right) chemotherapy.
skin metastases of oat cell (small cell) lung cancer, before (left) and after (right) chemotherapy.


Surgery is recommended for early stage disease. This applies to stages 1-2 and may apply selectively to stage 3 of the disease. Before operating on an early stage non-small cell lung cancer, the surgeon will take matters other than the fact that the disease is early on staging into account. This will depend on the size and situation of the cancer. He will want to know that the patient's lung function, which is often impaired due to a lifetime of smoking, can withstand the loss of lung tissue that will result. This lung ‘reserve’ can now be adequately assessed before any planned operation nowadays, and must be known to the surgeon prior to the planned operation. Similarly, the patient’s heart must be in good enough shape for operation.


Thus, after the staging of the disease as outlined above and the pre-operative medical assessment, the patients who ‘qualify’ proceed to lung resection (either lobectomy - lobe removal or pneumonectomy - removal of the whole lung) at a chest splitting operation called a thoracotomy. At operation, the surgeon will re-assess the situation. If the disease is actually more extensive within the chest than the scans regarded it to be (and this happens despite the most careful pre-operative assessment, then there is no advantage in proceeding to major lung surgery without the possibility of removing all the disease and the surgeon will close the chest without having carried out a definitive operation. Otherwises, the surgeon will go forward with te radical (hopefully curative resection). 


Where the disease is confined to the lung or the stage 2 disease that the pre-operative imaging defined, the resection proceeds as planned. In selected patients, there is a  benefit in consideration of chemotherapy following surgery, and this will be (to a large extent) determined by the histology review of the resected specimen. The , there is a detailed discussion with the oncologist as the balance of side effects against the benefits need to be carefully appraised. for example, where there is lymph node invasion at the root of  the lung, there is a statistical benefit in favour of four courses of post-operative chemotherapy; similarly for all patients with tumours above 2cm in size.


There is still no consensus as to the place of radical surgical resection, as just outlined, where there is early central chest/mediastinal lymph nodal disease on the pre-operative staging, and the early stage 3 patient may additionally gain advantage from chemotherapy and mediastinal radiotherapy. There are many clinical trials currently underway trying to sort out the use of radical surgery plus chemo- and/or radiotherapy in stage 3 disease, and the order in whihch the yshould be deliverd (e.g chemotherapy first and then definitve surgery)


Radical (this term refers to therapy given with curative intent) radiotherapy is given to patients with stage 1 and 2 disease where surgery is contraindicated on medical grounds or the patient declines operation. Radiotherapy is another form of locally ablative theray and can replace surgery where the patient's condition is too frail to withstand surgery. With modern techniques, it is possible to deliver highly ablative doses to tumours and a modern form of foacl radiation therapy called the CYberknife may be the ultimate technique in this regard. At toehr times., it is important ot cover a wide area around the primary lung cancer (e.g. the local draining lymph nodes orthe superior vena cava) and then conventionally fractionated radiotherapy is indicated.


As with surgery, the profession is researching into how best to combine chemotherapy with radiotherapy.


The radiotherapy is given via high energy linear accelerators and using conformational techniques to mould the high dose therapy around the primary tumour in the lung and its immediate draining lymph nodes at the root of the lung, whilst minimising the dose to the normal lung tissue. The patients undergoing radical radiotherapy attend a Radiotherapy Department from three to six weeks depending on the type of radiotherapy prescribed. In general, a course of radiotherapy may be given on weekdays over 6 weeks. In some centres, treatment may be given up to 3 times a day including weekends over a period of 3 weeks. For the highly localised form of therapy (Cyberknife) the treatments may only number one to three, but the daily dose is much larger than orthodox fraction size.


A proportion of patients will have advanced disease that is not amenable to cure. The management options in these patients include surveillance until there is symptomatic progression of disease, chemotherapy treatment to prevent progression of disease and palliative treatment with radiotherapy for local symptoms such as chest pain or a persistent cough due to tumour. Chemotherapy drugs continue to evolve and the newer combinations are generally well tolerated with improvements in symptom control and some improvement in survival. Newer agents including biological drugs that can disrupt blood vessel formation and drugs which identify certain receptors on cancer cells have also proven of benefit and can be added to chemotherapy regimens (e.g bevacizumab - avastin, although this has roisks if combined with chest radiotherapy).


In spite of advance in lung cancer treatments and good responses in many patients,  the overall outlook for many patients remains poor. Studies or clinical trials are underway to assess the benefit of chemotherapy prior to surgery, the combination of chemotherapy and biological drugs given in conjunction with radiotherapy, and the extended use of these drugs after surgery or a course of radiation.



Small cell lung cancer


Small cell lung cancer has a much higher predisposition to spread/metastasise to other organs early in its natural history and it is for this reason that it is very rare that surgery is ever thought appropriate for this disease: 


Fit patients with limited stage disease should be considered for a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment. Chemotherapy is administered at the start of radiotherapy but is some cases can precede the radiotherapy treatment. Radiotherapy may be given twice daily over a period of 3 weeks or once daily over a period of 5 weeks. A proportion of patients with small cell lung cancer relapse with brain metastases. The addition of radiotherapy to the brain during or after the course of lung radiotherapy has been shown to reduce the rate of brain metastases (prophylactic cranial irradiation) as  the drugs tend to fail to enter the brain asa well as elsewhere in the body and there is a high risk of seeding of this disease to the brain.


In patients with extensive stage small cell lung cancer the treatment intent is palliative. Chemotherapy can reduce the tumour burden in fitter patients. Local palliative radiotherapy can reduce symptoms from metastatic disease e.g. bone pain, brain metastases. Surveillance with symptom control should be considered for those patients who are frail and not fit to tolerate more aggressive therapies.

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