WebMD > 

Treatment Options for Early-Stage Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC)

Treatment Options for Early-Stage Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC)

This article is for people who have early-stage non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and their care partners, or anyone who wants to learn more about NSCLC. The goal of this patient education activity is to help patients and care partners engage in shared decision-making with their doctor about treatment options for early-stage NSCLC.

You will learn about:

  • What NSCLC is

  • Lung cancer stages

  • Treatment for early-stage (stage 1, 2, or 3) NSCLC and its goals

  • Possible side effects of treatment

  • Questions to ask your doctor

All medicines listed in this activity may not be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for NSCLC but are recommended by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN).

Watch this video first to learn how you can get the most out of WebMD Education programs.

Test Your Knowledge

What Is Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC)?

Cancer is when certain cells in your body start growing out of control. Cancer that starts in the lungs is called lung cancer.

There are 2 main types of lung cancer -- small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Each of these grows differently and is treated differently. NSCLC is much more common than SCLC.

The 3 main types of NSCLC are:

  • Adenocarcinoma -- the most common -- that usually forms in the tiny air sacs in your lungs (alveoli)

  • Squamous cell carcinoma that forms in the main airways or passageways in your lungs (bronchi)

  • Large cell carcinoma that forms in the large cells anywhere in the lungs

Lung Cancer Stages

Cancer stage is the extent, or degree, of cancer. Your doctor will consider stage when evaluating the most likely course of your cancer (your prognosis) and to help plan treatment.

NSCLC stages range from 0 to 4:

  • Stage 0 is rare and is called in situ ("in place") because cancer cells have formed in the airways, but not deeper in the lungs

  • Stage 1, stage 2, and stage 3 mean cancer cells have grown into the lung tissue. With stage 2 and 3, some cells may have spread (metastasized) to nearby lymph nodes

  • Stage 4 is lung cancer that has spread to other parts of the body, such as the brain

Treating Stage 1, 2, or 3 NSCLC

There are several treatment options for stage 1, 2, and 3 -- or early stage -- NSCLC that may be used alone or in combination. Which your doctor recommends will depend on your NSCLC stage, the number of primary tumors (main groups of cancer cells in your lungs), and your overall health and wishes.

Treatment may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy (or "chemo"), chemoradiation that combines radiation with chemotherapy, medicines, and joining a clinical trial.

The Goals of Treatment

The goals of treating early-stage NSCLC can include:

  • Cure or control cancer

  • Remove all, or most, cancer

  • Stop or delay cancer from coming back

  • Improve your quality of life

No one treatment is for everyone, so you will make a plan with your doctor that best fits your goals and individual needs. Be sure to talk to your doctor and healthcare team about your personal preferences for your treatment plan.

Treatment Options for Early-Stage NSCLC

Treatment options for stage 1, 2, or 3 NSCLC that may be used alone or in combination include:

  • Surgery to remove all or as much of the cancer as possible

  • Radiation therapy that uses high-energy waves (such as x-rays) to kill cancer cells, stop them from making new cells, or shrink tumors

  • Chemotherapy to kill cancer cells or stop them from completing their life cycle so they can't increase in number

  • Chemoradiation that combines radiation with chemotherapy

  • Medicines such as targeted therapy to destroy cancer cells or stop them from growing, or immunotherapy that helps your immune system -- your body's natural defense system -- find and kill cancer cells

Possible Side Effects of Treatment

Different treatments can have different side effects. Some that may happen with treatments for NSCLC can include:

  • Fatigue (tiredness), loss of appetite, or weight changes (radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy)

  • Nausea (chemotherapy, immunotherapy)

  • Diarrhea (chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy)

  • Skin changes or rash (radiation therapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy)

Chemotherapy may also cause liver problems, decreases in certain blood cell levels, risk of infection, mouth sores, vomiting, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, and hair loss.

After surgery, some people may have pain, swelling, scars, or numbness in the area where the surgery was.

Not all side effects are listed here. Ask your doctor, pharmacist, or healthcare team for a complete list.

Managing Side Effects

Before you start treatment, ask your doctor about any side effects that may happen and when you should call them or go to the emergency room because of side effects.

Some side effects can go away on their own over time, while others may last longer. Your doctor may recommend adding a medicine before, during, or after treatment to help. Together, you can discuss ways to manage side effects.

Tracking and recording your symptoms, all medicines you take, and any side effects in a journal or diary can be helpful for when you talk with your doctor.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

Questions you can ask about early-stage NSCLC and treatment can include:

  • What stage is my NSCLC and what are the goals of treatment?

  • What treatments are available and what are their possible side effects?

  • How can we manage NSCLC symptoms and any treatment side effects?

  • How will I know if treatment is working?

  • Is there a clinical trial I might be eligible for?

  • How can I make sure I have the best quality of life possible?

  • Are there any lifestyle changes I should make?

  • What should I do if I feel stressed or depressed?

Test Your Knowledge

Survey question


You have successfully completed the program: Treatment Options for Early-Stage Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC).

View Additional Materials

View Additional Materials on this topic that you may find useful:

Lung Cancer

What Is Lung Cancer?

How Is Lung Cancer Diagnosed and Treated?

Treating NSCLC

NSCLC Treatment

Authors and Disclosures

Clinician Reviewer

Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD

Senior Director, Learning & Development, Medscape, LLC.

Disclosure: Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh

Associate Medical Education Director, Medscape, LLC.

Disclosure: Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


Share this:

URAC: Accredited Health Web Site HonCode: Health on the Net Foundation AdChoices