This will impact if your lung cancer is treatable by surgery or not.
If you catch lung cancer at an early stage, you can often treat it with surgery. This is true for both major categories of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. However, some patients are not good candidates for surgery because they have unresectable lung cancer.
When Surgery Is Appropriate
In general, surgery is the ideal treatment for early stages of lung cancer when:
- The cancer is located in only one lung
- Cancer cells have not spread to other parts of the body
- The individual does not have comorbidities that would make surgery risky
Lung cancer that meets these criteria is considered resectable. When this is the case, the surgeon can remove the section of the lung where the cancer is located. Surprisingly, the body can function with just one healthy lung, so missing a section of a lung isn’t too big of a deal.
Non-small cell lung cancer is more likely to be resectable than small cell lung cancer. That’s because small cell lung cancer typically affects both lungs.
Unresectable Lung Cancer
Unresectable lung cancer cannot be removed by surgery. Doctors categorize lung cancer as unresectable if the cancer is affecting both lungs. This means the lung cancer has progressed beyond the initial stages and is becoming more advanced. Logistically, it is not safe or ideal to remove parts of both lungs.
Doctors can treat unresectable lung cancer in other ways, such as:
- Chemotherapy and radiation: Doctors may use these therapies alone or in combination (known as chemoradiation).
- Immunotherapy: This treatment uses the body’s own immune system to identify and attack cancer cells throughout the body.
- Clinical trials: There are a number of new potential therapies that could help patients in the future. Patients can participate in clinical trials to receive these novel treatments while helping to potentially advance research on lung cancer treatments.
No matter what stage of lung cancer you have, your treatment team will find the appropriate therapy. Learn more about treatment for non-small cell lung cancer by stage here.
Stefan Balan, MD, is an oncologist at RWJBarnabas Health in Jersey City, NJ.
- Non-small cell lung cancer treatment (PDQ) - patient version. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. (Accessed on January 12 2021)
- Small cell lung cancer treatment (PDQ) - patient version. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. (Accessed on January 12, 2021)
- Unresectable. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. (Accessed on January 12, 2021)