Early stage lung cancer may be treated with surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy. If surgery is no longer an option, a doctor may prescribe other kinds of chemotherapy or targeted therapy to fight the tumor. For most patients with advanced lung cancer, current treatments can extend survival but do not cure the cancer. Clinical trials may offer the best option to try new treatments that may be more effective. Your doctor can tell you if a clinical trial is an option for you, and share the risks and benefits of participating.

Approved treatments for lung cancer: Chemotherapy

These drugs act on rapidly growing and dividing cells, a characteristic of most cancer cells. These drugs include alkylating agents, anti-metabolites, and taxanes. However, these treatments can also affect other rapidly growing cells in the body (ie, bone marrow and hair follicles). Researchers are currently searching for ways to improve patient responses to chemotherapy, usually by using drugs in combination that will make the chemotherapy more toxic to the cancer or by identifying new targets involved in cell growth and division.

  • Carboplatin (Paraplat, Paraplatin®)
  • Cisplatin (Platinol®)
  • Paclitaxel (Taxol®, Abraxane®)
  • Gemcitabine (Gemzar®)
  • Methotrexate (Abitrexate®, Folex®, Mexate®)
  • Pemetrexed (Alimta®)

Approved treatments for lung cancer: Targeted Therapies

Targeted therapies act on specific proteins within the cell essential for tumor growth. These drugs include tyrosine kinase inhibitors and anti-angiogenic agents. Researchers are currently trying to improve patient responses to these therapies through testing drug combinations, increasing the specificity of these drugs, and finding new drug targets to add to this arsenal of targeted therapies.

Bevacizumab (Avastin®)
Bevacizumab is an anti-angiogenic treatment for lung cancer. For a tumor to grow, it needs oxygen and nutrients supplied new blood vessels. Anti-angiogenic and vascular disrupting agents prevent those new blood vessels from growing and feeding the tumor.

Erlotinib (Tarceva®) and Gefitinib (Iressa®)
Erlotinib and Gefinitib are tyrosine kinase inhibitors that block the Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR). EGFR is mutated in anywhere from 10-35% of patients with NSCLC, more common among East Asian patients and female never-smokers. Other drugs targeting EGFR include cetuximab (Erbitux®), currently being tested for NSCLC. Learn more about EGFR here.

Crizotinib (Xalkori®),  Ceritinib (Zykadia®)
Crizotinib and Ceritinib are a tyrosine kinase inhibitos that block the Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase (ALK). ALK translocations occur in 3-7% of NSCLC patients, most commonly in light or never- smokers and younger patients. Learn more about ALK here.

Afatinib (Gilotrif®)
Afatinib is a drug used to treat non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) that has spread to other parts of the body. It is a tyrosine kinase inhibitor that blocks the Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR), which may help keep cancer cells from growing. 

Research has indicated that these therapies may be more effective than current chemotherapy in some cases, and less harmful to normal, healthy cells. One of the most exciting areas of research to improve treatment for lung cancer is using biomarkers to determine if a targeted therapy will be a more effective treatment than the standard chemotherapy and radiation. Click here to learn more about molecular testing, biomarkers and personalized medicine. 

More resources on lung cancer treatment:
National Comprehensive Cancer Network Guidelines for Patients
National Cancer Institute: Lung Cancer Treatment