A person placing their hands over their chest.
Some common signs of non-small cell lung cancer are chest pain, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Symptoms and Treatments

The more you know about lung cancer, the better prepared you are to make a decision about which treatment is best for you. For non-small cell lung cancer symptoms, there are plenty of treatment options.

What is Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer?

Non-small cell lung cancer is the most prevalent type of lung cancer. Of all lung cancer diagnoses, non-small cell lung cancer makes up about 85% of cases.

Cancer forms in the lung tissues when normal cells mutate or start multiplying at a rapid pace. These mutations may cause cells to live longer than they should, leading to a surplus of cells in the lungs. When there are too many cancer cells, they can form a tumor, lesion, or nodule.

Within the category of non-small cell lung cancer, there are various subtypes. The more common subtypes of non-small cell lung cancer include:

  • Adenocarcinoma: most common subtype. These slow-growing cancer cells form in the outer part of the lungs.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: slow-growing cancer that forms in the flat cells lining the interior of the lungs.
  • Large cell carcinoma: may develop in many types of large cells. Unlike adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, large cell carcinoma grows quickly and is and more likely to spread.

ALK Positive Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Approximately 5% of all lung cancer patients are diagnosed with ALK positive non-small cell lung cancer. This condition stems from a rearrangement of the EML4 gene and anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) gene. This fusion creates an oncogene, which may cause cancer cells.

ALK-positive lung cancer was discovered in 2007. The oncogene may be the result of uncontrolled cell duplication, but the definitive cause of this rearrangement is unknown. It does not appear to be a hereditary mutation. This condition occurs mostly in younger women and those who have never smoked (or hardly smoked) in their life.

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms vary between individuals depending on the stage and type of non-small cell lung cancer they have. Some symptoms include:

  • A persistent or worsening cough
  • Chest pain that gets worse with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored phlegm
  • Shortness of breath
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Wheezing
  • Exhaustion or weakness
  • Infections in the lungs that do not go away, or come back

Treatment Options

Once diagnosed, recommended treatment for non-small cell lung cancer depends on the specific type of cancer, stage, the patient’s overall health, and personal preferences. Talk to your doctor about side effects before starting any treatment.

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Some available treatments include:

Surgery

Your doctor may advise surgery to remove the tumor. There are different surgeries available depending on the location and stage of cancer:

  • Wedge or segmental resection: removes the tumor and a margin of healthy tissue surrounding it
  • Lobectomy: removes the lobe of the lung
  • Pneumonectomy: removes the whole lung
  • Extended pulmonary resection: removes the muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and other tissues near the lung
  • Chest wall resection: removes the muscles, bones, and other tissues of the chest wall
  • Sleeve resection: removes a tumor from one of the bronchi (airway tube)

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy may slow the growth of cells or stop cancer from coming back. This drug treatment kills fast-growing cells and is typically used before or after surgery. If surgery is not an option, chemotherapy may be the main treatment.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation uses intense energy to damage cancer cells, destroying the genetic material that controls how they grow or divide. Non-small cell lung cancer generally uses external radiation therapy, where the energy beams at a targeted point on your body. When external radiation is not an option, brachytherapy (a type of internal radiation therapy) places radioactive material at a specific site inside the body to kill cancer cells.

Chemoradiation

When a patient undergoes chemotherapy and radiation therapy at the same time, it is called chemoradiation. This joint treatment is only offered to patients healthy enough to go through both treatments simultaneously.

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy uses drugs that target specific molecules that signal the cancer cell to grow or divide. These molecules may be inside or on cancer cells. This therapy may be offered instead of chemotherapy if cancer has spread or come back after chemotherapy treatments.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy boosts or restores the immune system to better fight against cancer. There are several types:

  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors: drugs that enable the immune system to respond stronger to cancer cells
  • T-cell transfer therapy: takes immune cells from the tumor, multiplies the strongest and most active cells in a lab, and puts them back into the body via a needle in a vein
  • Monoclonal antibodies: uses lab-created proteins that bind to or mark cancer cells so the immune system can recognize and destroy them
  • Treatment vaccines: enhances the immune system response to cancer cells
  • Immune system modulators: amplifies the immune system’s response against cancer

Endobronchial Therapies

The purpose of endobronchial therapy is to remove a blockage in the lungs’ airways to help relieve symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or pain. Depending on the location and severity of the blockage, endobronchial therapy uses surgery, radiation therapy, electrocautery, cryosurgery, or photodynamic therapy to remove or destroy cells or tissues.

Clinical Trials

Some patients may choose to take part in a clinical trial that attempts to find new ways to prevent, find, and treat cancer.

Latest Techniques

Research is ongoing to find the best and most effective treatment options. They’re investigating the effectiveness of personalized drug therapy and the predictability of a specific drug’s potential effectiveness. There is also additional research looking into drugs and genes for targeted treatments. Alongside this, there is promising research in immunotherapy techniques and improved techniques for surgery and radiation therapy to reduce side effects and improve their effectiveness.

Early Detection

Non-small cell lung cancer has many treatment options available. An early diagnosis and treatment when the cancer is in the early stages gives you more options for effective treatments.