Lung Cancer

Lung cancer starts in the epithelial cells in the lungs, which are the cells that line the airways. Healthy epithelial cells create mucus, which lubricates and provides protection to the lungs. When healthy epithelial cells mutate and grow uncontrollably, they become cancerous cells that accumulate and form a mass known as a primary tumor. Cancerous cells may accumulate so rapidly that they replace normal, healthy cells, affecting the way that your lungs function, which may make breathing difficult.

Sometimes cancer cells break off from the primary tumor and form secondary tumors in nearby sites, such as another lobe of the lung, or distant sites, such as the brain. This spread of cancer is called metastasis. When metastasis occurs, the cancer found in the new region is still considered lung cancer and is treated as such. For example, lung cancer that has spread to the liver is still considered lung cancer, not liver cancer (see Figure below).

Several options are available to treat lung cancer, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, molecular therapy and immunotherapy. When possible, surgery is the primary treatment to remove tumors that are caught early. Factors that will guide your treatment include the type and stage of your lung cancer, the location of the tumor, biomarker testing results, your overall lung function and your general health.

A type of immunotherapy known as immune checkpoint inhibitors is a relatively new, but effective, strategy for treating metastatic lung cancer. Immune checkpoint inhibitors are drugs that block specific proteins and receptors from triggering a slowdown of the immune system. This promising treatment is changing the course of lung cancer treatment. Some people with metastatic lung cancer are living longer with a better quality of life, due in part to fewer and more manageable side effects.

When discussing treatment options with your doctor, make sure you know the type of lung cancer you have, including any information about biomarkers specific to your tumor. Understanding as much as you can about your cancer will help you make more informed treatment decisions. Research through clinical trials continues to expand the role of immunotherapy as a treatment option for lung cancer (see Clinical Trials). Talk with your doctor to determine if a clinical trial is right for you.


FDA-Approved Immunotherapies for Lung Cancer*
As of 12/5/17
atezolizumab (Tecentriq)
nivolumab (Opdivo)
pembrolizumab (Keytruda)

*Each therapy is prescribed based on specific criteria. Discuss your options
with your doctor.

Additional Resources


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