Lung Cancer

What is the treatment for lung cancer? (Part 3)

Chemotherapy: Both NSCLC and SCLC may be treated with chemotherapy. Chemotherapy refers to the administration of drugs that stop the growth of cancer cells by killing them or preventing them from dividing. Chemotherapy may be given alone, as an adjuvant to surgical therapy, or in combination with radiotherapy. While a number of chemotherapeutic drugs have been developed, the class of drugs known as the platinum-based drugs have been the most effective in treatment of lung cancers.

Chemotherapy is the treatment of choice for most SCLC, since these tumors are generally widespread in the body when they are diagnosed. Only half of people who have SCLC survive for 4 months without chemotherapy. With chemotherapy, their survival time is increased up to four- to fivefold. Chemotherapy alone is not particularly effective in treating NSCLC, but when NSCLC has metastasized, it can prolong survival in many cases.

Chemotherapy may be given as pills, as an intravenous infusion, or as a combination of the two. Chemotherapy treatments usually are given in an outpatient setting. A combination of drugs is given in a series of treatments, called cycles, over a period of weeks to months, with breaks in between cycles. Unfortunately, the drugs used in chemotherapy also kill normally dividing cells in the body, resulting in unpleasant side effects. Damage to blood cells can result in increased susceptibility to infections and difficulties with blood clotting (bleeding or bruising easily). Other side effects include fatigue, weight loss, hair loss, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and mouth sores. The side effects of chemotherapy vary according to the dosage and combination of drugs used and may also vary from individual to individual. Medications have been developed that can treat or prevent many of the side effects of chemotherapy. The side effects generally disappear during the recovery phase of the treatment or after its completion.

Prophylactic brain radiation: SCLC often spreads to the brain. Sometimes people with SCLC that is responding well to treatment are treated with radiation therapy to the head to treat very early spread to the brain (called micrometastasis) that is not yet detectable with CT or MRI scans and has not yet produced symptoms. Brain radiation therapy can cause short-term memory problems, fatigue, nausea, and other side effects.

Treatment of recurrence: Lung cancer that has returned following treatment with surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy is referred to as recurrent or relapsed. If a recurrent cancer is confined to one site in the lung, it may be treated with surgery. Recurrent tumors generally do not respond to the chemotherapeutic drugs that were previously administered. Since platinum-based drugs are generally used in initial chemotherapy of lung cancers, these agents are not useful in most cases of recurrence. A type of chemotherapy referred to as second-line chemotherapy is used to treat recurrent cancers that have previously been treated with chemotherapy, and a number of second-line chemotherapeutic regimens have been proven effective at prolonging survival. People with recurrent lung cancer who are well enough to tolerate therapy also are good candidates for experimental therapies (see below), including clinical trials.

Targeted therapy: The drugs erlotinib (Tarceva) and gefitinib (Iressa) are so-called targeted drugs, which may be used in certain patients with NSCLC who are no longer responding to chemotherapy. Targeted therapy drugs more specifically target cancer cells, resulting in less damage to normal cells than general chemotherapeutic agents. Erlotinib and gefitinib target a protein called the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) that is important in promoting the division of cells. This protein is found at abnormally high levels on the surface of some types of cancer cells, including many cases of non-small cell lung cancer.

Other attempts at targeted therapy include drugs known as antiangiogenesis drugs, which block the development of new blood vessels within a cancer. Without adequate blood vessels to supply oxygen-carrying blood, the cancer cells will die. The antiangiogenic drug bevacizumab (Avastin) has also been found to prolong survival in advanced lung cancer when it is added to the standard chemotherapy regimen. Bevacizumab is given intravenously every 2 to 3 weeks. However, since this drug may cause bleeding, it is not appropriate for use in patients who are coughing up blood, if the lung cancer has spread to the brain, or in people who are receiving anticoagulation therapy ("blood thinner" medications). Bevacizumab also is not used in cases of squamous cell cancer because it leads to bleeding from this type of lung cancer.

Cetuximab is an antibody that binds to the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). In patients with NSCLC whose tumors have been shown to express the EGFR by immunohistochemical analysis, the addition of cetuximab may be considered for some patients.

Photodynamic therapy (PDT): One newer therapy used for different types and stages of lung cancer (as well as some other cancers) is photodynamic therapy. In photodynamic treatment, a photosynthesizing agent (such as a porphyrin, a naturally occurring substance in the body) is injected into the bloodstream a few hours prior to surgery. During this time, the agent is taken up in rapidly growing cells such as cancer cells. A procedure then follows in which the physician applies a certain wavelength of light through a handheld wand directly to the site of the cancer and surrounding tissues. The energy from the light activates the photosensitizing agent, causing the production of a toxin that destroys the tumor cells. PDT has the advantages that it can precisely target the location of the cancer, is less invasive than surgery, and can be repeated at the same site if necessary. The drawbacks of PDT are that it is only useful in treating cancers that can be reached with a light source and is not suitable for treatment of extensive cancers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the photosensitizing agent called porfimer sodium (Photofrin) for use in PDT to treat or relieve the symptoms of esophageal cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Further research is ongoing to determine the effectiveness of PDT in other types of lung cancer.

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA): Radiofrequency ablation is being studied as an alternative to surgery, particularly in cases of early stage lung cancer. In this type of treatment, a needle is inserted through the skin into the cancer, usually under guidance by CT scanning. Radiofrequency (electrical) energy is then transmitted to the tip of the needle where it produces heat in the tissues, killing the cancerous tissue and closing small blood vessels that supply the cancer. RFA usually is not painful and has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of certain cancers, including lung cancers. Studies have shown that this treatment can prolong survival similarly to surgery when used to treat early stages of lung cancer but without the risks of major surgery and the prolonged recovery time associated with major surgical procedures.

Experimental therapies: Since no therapy is currently available that is absolutely effective in treating lung cancer, patients may be offered a number of new therapies that are still in the experimental stage, meaning that doctors do not yet have enough information to decide whether these therapies should become accepted forms of treatment for lung cancer. New drugs or new combinations of drugs are tested in so-called clinical trials, which are studies that evaluate the effectiveness of new medications in comparison with those treatments already in widespread use. Experimental treatments known as immunotherapies are being studied that involve the use of vaccine-related therapies or other therapies that attempt to utilize the body's immune system to fight cancer cells. Vaccine therapies against lung cancer are another area in which research is ongoing. In 2010, a treatment vaccine for advanced prostate cancer gained approval by the FDA, and lung cancer treatment vaccines are also being studied in clinical trials.

Reviewed on 12/3/2013

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