When you’re diagnosed with early-stage lung cancer (stages 1-3A), making a plan for what’s next can help you feel confident and prepared for your cancer journey.
Having early-stage lung cancer generally means that the cancer has not yet spread to distant organs and may be surgically removed. It’s often diagnosed by imaging tests or by procedures like biopsies. A biopsy is when a group of cells or tissue are removed so they can be examined by a pathologist. The goal of surgery for early-stage lung cancer is to remove the tumor to provide the best chance of curing the disease.
These steps may help you navigate early-stage lung cancer.
Step 1: Learn more about your lung cancer
After a lung cancer diagnosis, one of the first steps doctors will take is to try to determine the size of the cancer in the body, if it has spread beyond the lungs, and if so, to where. This is called staging.
Talk with your healthcare team and do research about your type and stage of lung cancer. Having a clear understanding of what is happening in your body can help you make informed decisions with your healthcare team along every point of your cancer journey.
Step 2: Determine your life and treatment goals
A cancer diagnosis can impact every part of your life. Now is the time to think about the things in your life that are most important. Consider your family, career, hobbies and other responsibilities. What family events are important to you? What are some things you are going to need help with? How can you manage time away from work? Now is also a good time to ask friends and family for support – whether that means help with household chores, driving your kids to school or just having a few positive people to talk to.
Write down your thoughts, questions, expectations and aspirations and share with your healthcare team. Together, you and your team can set realistic goals for treatment and determine the plan that’s right for you.
Step 3: Test for biomarkers
Biomarker testing, also called genetic testing, molecular testing, or mutation testing, is an important part of getting a full diagnosis. It can also help determine which therapies are appropriate to treat your type of lung cancer.
Biomarkers are biological molecules found in the blood or tissue that can serve as indicators of various types of cancer. Some biomarkers occur because of changes in the genes called mutations. Learning more about cancer’s biomarkers can be very helpful in understanding more about your type of cancer and the treatment options that may work best for you. The biomarkers you are tested for will depend on the type and stage of your lung cancer. Be sure to ask your healthcare team about biomarker testing.
Step 4: Discuss treatment options
In early-stage lung cancer, surgery is the primary treatment, with the goal of removing the tumor from the body. Depending on the size and location of the cancer, surgery may be used alone or your doctor may recommend additional treatments before (neoadjuvant) or after (adjuvant) surgery.
Examples of neoadjuvant therapy include chemotherapy and/or radiation, while adjuvant therapy may include treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, and targeted therapy. Be sure to discuss your full treatment plan with your healthcare team.
Step 5: Create a plan with your healthcare team
Your healthcare team is there to help you every step of the way. Work with them to create a complete plan for treatment.
As you partner with your doctors to create your treatment plan, it’s important to ask questions. With early-stage lung cancer, you might start with these:
- Is surgery an option for me? If so, what will it be like and how long will it take to recover?
- What happens after surgery? What, if any, adjuvant treatment options are right for my specific type of lung cancer?
- What happens during chemotherapy and/or radiation?
- Has my tumor been tested for biomarkers?
- What kind of side effects can I expect?
- What can I do to help keep my lungs as healthy as possible?
Step 6: Stick to your treatment and monitoring plan
A recurrence or recurrent cancer is when cancer comes back after treatment. This doesn’t mean the treatment was wrong or didn’t work, it just means that a very small amount of undetectable cells may have remained and over time, grew into detectable cancer.
Like most things in life, consistency is key when it comes to living with lung cancer. When initial treatment is complete, your doctor might have you come in for annual checkups or scans. Sticking to your monitoring plan and prioritizing your care is very important, especially when it comes to identifying a recurrence. While your care, up to and immediately following surgery, may have been managed by a surgeon, it is important to ask for a referral to a medical oncologist to ensure proper long-term monitoring. A medical oncologist is critical to understanding the complete picture of your cancer care and providing guidance on next steps.
Your doctor may prescribe adjuvant therapy after surgery to help reduce the risk of your cancer coming back. Be sure to continue your treatment plan through the entire recommended duration to help lower the chance of your lung cancer coming back.
Step 7: Find Support and Resources
Early-stage lung cancer can bring on several emotions and worries, including concerns of recurrence. And while every lung cancer journey is different, most people can benefit from a little extra support, guidance and the right resources. Finding information from a community who understands what you’re going through can help you and your loved ones feel heard, informed and inspired.