How Immunotherapy Treats Stage 3 Lung Cancer

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Lung cancer is the most common cancer worldwide, causing 25% of all cancer deaths. That’s why researchers are working diligently to develop new treatment strategies to provide better outcomes for people living with advanced lung cancer.

If you’ve been diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer, you likely have questions about your treatment options. Fortunately, there are many therapies your doctor may recommend to manage your condition. One of the newest methods of dealing with advanced lung cancers is immunotherapy, which harnesses the power of your body’s immune system to fight and kill cancer cells.

While immunotherapy shows promise as an effective treatment option for many people with stage 3 lung cancer, it’s not an appropriate treatment option for everyone. If you’re interested in immunotherapy, it’s best to ask your doctor if this treatment could be right for you.

Treating Advanced Lung Cancer

Managing Stage 3 Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is categorized into two groups: non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). NSCLC makes up 80 to 85% of all diagnosed lung cancers. Regardless of the type, after a lung cancer diagnosis is made, doctors work quickly to determine the stage of the cancer—that is, whether or not the cancer has spread outside the lungs and, if so, how far.

People living with stage 3 lung cancer have tumors growing inside lung tissue as well as cancer that’s spread beyond the lungs. In general, stage 3 lung cancer affects the lungs and lymph nodes in the chest, including those surrounding the lungs and airways near the collarbone. While stage 3 lung cancer may affect lymph nodes on either side of the chest, it has not yet spread to distant organs or tissues.

For many people, advanced lung cancer is treated with a combination of therapies. Your treatment course depends on how far your cancer has spread and your overall health. Many people benefit from more traditional cancer therapies, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy. But while these are good options, they are not as precise as newer treatments like immunotherapy. Also, you may want to avoid some of the side effects of these classic treatment options. That’s where immunotherapy comes in.

Immunotherapy Explained

Immunotherapy is a relatively new form of treatment that uses your body’s own immune system to kill cancer cells. Immunotherapy drugs for lung cancer help your body better recognize and destroy cancer cells. But to understand how immunotherapy works, it’s important to first understand how your immune system works.

Your immune system sends fighter cells to attack invaders like bacteria and viruses. Typically, it knows to leave normal, healthy cells alone. This is accomplished by certain structures on immune system cells, called checkpoints, that get turned on or off depending on whether a cell is normal or not. Some cancer cells have the ability to fool your immune system to disregard the presence of abnormal, malignant cells.

Immunotherapy drugs target immune system cell checkpoints to encourage your body to attack harmful cancer cells. By stimulating these checkpoints, immunotherapy drugs effectively take the breaks off your immune system, releasing it to destroy cancer cells.

If immunotherapy is right for you, you’ll receive your medications as an intravenous (IV) infusion every two to three weeks. But keep in mind, like all cancer treatments, immunotherapy does pose the risk of certain side effects. You may experience fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, cough, skin rashes, or joint pain. In rare cases, immunotherapy drugs cause the immune system to attack other parts of your body, such as your liver or kidneys. If this occurs, your treatment may need to stop.

Immunotherapy is a newer form of treatment for stage 3 lung cancer, but it’s showing promise as an effective solution for dealing with this disease. While it isn’t right for everyone, immunotherapy may allow you to use your own body to help fight your cancer. If you’re interested in immunotherapy as a treatment option, ask your doctor whether this therapy could be right for you.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 8
  1. Cancer Stat Facts: Lung and Bronchus Cancer. National Cancer
    Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program.
  2. What is Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer? American Cancer Society.
  3. Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Stages. American Cancer Society.
  4. Treating Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. American Cancer
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    for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. American Cancer Society.

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