How Is Lung Cancer Diagnosed and Treated?

Photo of a man in a hospital talking to his doctor and nurse

People with non-small cell lung cancer can be treated with surgery.

Types of Lung Cancer

The two main types of lung cancer are small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. These categories refer to what the cancer cells look like under a microscope. Non-small cell lung cancer is more common than small cell lung cancer.

If you have lung cancer (especially non-small cell lung cancer), your doctor may run tests to find out if you have a change in your genes (genetic mutation). The results of these tests help your doctor know which treatments will work best for you.


If lung cancer is diagnosed, other tests are done to find out how far it has spread through the lungs, lymph nodes, and the rest of the body. This process is called staging. The type and stage of lung cancer tells doctors what kind of treatment you need. For more information, visit Stages of Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer and Stages of Small Cell Lung Cancer.

Screening can help find lung cancer at an early stage, when treatment may work better.

Types of Treatment

Lung cancer is treated in several ways, depending on the type of lung cancer and how far it has spread. People with non-small cell lung cancer can be treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of these treatments. People with small cell lung cancer are usually treated with radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

  • Surgery. An operation where doctors cut out cancer tissue.
  • Chemotherapy. Using special medicines to shrink or kill the cancer. The drugs can be pills you take or medicines given in your veins, or sometimes both.
  • Radiation therapy. Using high-energy rays (similar to X-rays) to kill the cancer.
  • Targeted therapy. Using drugs to block the growth and spread of cancer cells. The drugs can be pills you take or medicines given in your veins. You will get tests to see if targeted therapy is right for your cancer type before this treatment is used.

Doctors from different specialties often work together to treat lung cancer. Pulmonologists are doctors who are experts in diseases of the lungs. Surgeons are doctors who perform operations. Thoracic surgeons specialize in chest, heart, and lung surgery. Medical oncologists are doctors who treat cancer with medicines. Radiation oncologists are doctors who treat cancers with radiation.

For more information, visit the National Cancer Institute’s Lung Cancer page. This site can also help you find a doctor or treatment facility that works in cancer care.

Clinical Trials

Clinical trials use new treatment options to see if they are safe and effective. For more information, visit the National Cancer Institute’s Clinical Trials page. If you have cancer, you may want to take part. Visit the sites listed below to find a clinical trial.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Complementary and alternative medicine are medicines and health practices that are not standard treatments doctors usually use to treat cancer.

  • Complementary medicine is used in addition to standard treatments. Examples include acupuncture and meditation.
  • Alternative medicine is used instead of standard treatments. Examples include special diets, megadose vitamins, herbal preparations, special teas, and magnet therapy.

Many kinds of complementary and alternative medicine have not been tested scientifically and may not be safe. Some complementary and alternative medicines may make your cancer medicine not work as well. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits before you start any kind of complementary or alternative medicine.

Which Treatment Is Right for Me?

Choosing the treatment that is right for you may be hard. Talk to your cancer doctor about the treatment options available for your type and stage of cancer. Your doctor can explain the risks and benefits of each treatment and their side effects. Side effects are how your body reacts to drugs or other treatments.

Sometimes people get an opinion from more than one cancer doctor. This is called a “second opinion.” Getting a second opinion may help you choose the treatment that is right for you.