Treating Lung Cancer at Penn

About Lung Cancer

Penn Medicine's Abramson Cancer Center and the Abramson Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital offer hope to patients facing lung cancer. Early and accurate diagnosis and the full range of treatment options available at Penn give patients with lung cancer the best chance of being cured.

Penn's Lung Cancer Program features a comprehensive team of thoracic surgeons, pulmonologists, nurses, respiratory therapists, rehabilitation specialists, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, and pathologists. Each provides comprehensive expertise in treating lung cancer. These specialists incorporate surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy to deliver integrated medicine for complex management of lung cancer.

In addition, Penn researchers are on the forefront of testing new surgical procedures, applying new drug therapies and developing the protocols for proton therapy and other radiation therapies that incorporate cutting edge technology and are changing the way lung cancer is treated.

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Lung Cancer Diagnosis

Penn Medicine's Lung Cancer Program at the Abramson Cancer Center offers hope to patients facing lung cancer. The early and accurate diagnosis and full range of immediate options available at Penn give patients with lung cancer the best chance of being cured.

Early diagnosis of lung cancer can be difficult. The early stages of lung cancer do not usually produce any symptoms, so only a small number of lung cancers are found early. When lung cancer is found early, it is often because of tests that were being done for something else.

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Treating Lung Cancer at Penn

The lung cancer specialists at Penn Medicine develop personalized treatment plans designed to give every patient the best possible outcome. Like all of programs at Penn's Abramson Cancer Center, the lung cancer program is focused on patient-centered care and meeting the unique needs of every patient and family.

Treatment options for lung cancer include surgery, radiation therapy and systemic treatment including both chemotherapy and targeted agents, as well as combined approaches utilizing a combination of some or all of these therapies have shown promise in extending survival of some patients with early disease.

Penn's treatment options for lung cancer include:

Each of these treatment options is explained in detail below.


Penn Medicine's lung cancer surgeons treat a large number of patients and are experienced in performing every type of cancer surgery, from minimally invasive procedures to traditional open surgery. As specialists in lung cancer surgery, they can determine the appropriate surgical option for every patient.

Lung cancer surgery is rarely used as the main treatment in lung cancer. In most, but not all cases, the surgery is followed by chemotherapy, biologic therapy, radiation therapy or a combination of treatments. These approaches are generally reserved for patients with larger tumors (> 4 cm) or tumors with lymph node involvement.

Several different types of operations are used to treat lung cancer. The type of surgery depends on the size and location of the tumor. Penn thoracic surgeons are now performed many lung cancer procedures robotically.


A lobectomy is a type of lung cancer surgery in which one lobe of a lung is removed. The right lung has three lobes, and the left lung has two lobes. It is most commonly performed for non-small cell lung cancers in which the tumor is confined to a single lobe. It is less invasive and conserves more lung function that a pneumonectomy.


A pneumonectomy is the surgical removal of a lung. It is performed on patients with non-small cell lung cancer where the cancer is limited to the lung. The size and location of the cancer within the lung also plays an important factor. Several lung function/respiratory tests are performed prior to surgery.

Segmentectomy or Wedge Resection

A wedge resection is a type of lung cancer surgery in which the tumor and a small amount of surrounding tissue is removed. It is usually performed for very small lung cancers.

Sleeve Resection

A small number of people with lung cancer may have a sleeve resection, in which the affected section of the bronchus, or large airway, is removed along with any surrounding cancer in the lobe of the lung. It is usually performed if the cancer is in the central area of the lung and is growing into one of the main airways.

Video-assisted Thoracic Surgery (VATS)

VATS is a minimally invasive surgical procedure in which the surgeon makes several small incisions in the chest. A tiny camera is inserted through one of the openings so the surgeon can see the lung and the tumor. Long instruments are passed though the other small holes to remove the tumor.

Other types of surgery may be used to help relieve the symptoms of the cancer.

  • Laser surgery can be used to open an airway blockage that may be causing pneumonia or shortness of breath.
  • Metal or plastic tubes called stents may be placed in the airways to help keep them open.
  • Small tubes may be placed in the chest to drain fluid that collects in the pleural space between the chest wall and the lungs, and makes it hard to breathe. One such catheter is called a pleurex.

Radiation Therapy

Penn Radiation Oncology has an international reputation for providing radiation therapy for patients with lung cancer. Radiation oncologists work side-by-side with their surgical and medical oncology colleagues to conduct clinical trials to advance the treatment of lung cancer.

In addition, patients being treated for at Penn Medicine have access to the Roberts Proton Therapy Center, one of the largest and most advanced facilities in the world with one of the most sophisticated weapons against cancer. Penn is one of the few academic medical centers using proton therapy with chemotherapy and biologic therapy to treat lung cancer prior to surgery.

Radiation may be recommended before lung cancer surgery to shrink a tumor, making it easier for the surgeon to remove. Radiation may be used after surgery if there are worrisome risk factors that make it likely for a tumor to come back in the chest. Sometimes radiation is used instead of surgery if the lung cancer team feels surgery is too dangerous for the patient, or if a tumor is too extensive to be removed with surgery.

Conformal Radiation Therapy (CRT)

In conformal radiation, a special computer uses CT imaging scans to create 3-D maps of the location of the cancer in the lung. The system permits the delivery of radiation from several directions, and the beams can then be shaped, or conformed, to match the shape of the cancer. Conformal radiation therapy limits radiation exposure to nearby healthy tissue as well as the tissue in the beam's path.


CyberKnife is a non-invasive alternative to surgery for the treatment of both cancerous and non-cancerous tumors anywhere in the body, including the lung. The treatment delivers beams of high dose radiation to tumors, all converging with extreme accuracy.

Image-guided Radiation Therapy (IGRT)

IGRT uses frequent imaging during a course of radiation therapy to improve the precision and accuracy of the delivery the radiation treatment. The linear accelerators are equipped with imaging technology that takes pictures of the tumor immediately before or even during the time radiation is delivered.

Specialized computer software compares these images of the tumor to the images taken during the simulation to establish the treatment plan. Necessary adjustments can then be made to the patient's position and/or the radiation beams to more precisely target radiation at the cancer and avoid the healthy surrounding tissue.

Intensity-modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT)

IMRT uses 3-D computed tomography (CT) images of the patient along with computerized dose calculations. It allows for the radiation dose to conform more precisely to the actual three-dimensional shape of the tumor by controlling, or modulating, the intensity of the radiation beam. The therapy allows higher radiation doses to be delivered to regions within the tumor while minimizing the dose to the surrounding area.

Proton Therapy

Proton therapy is external beam radiotherapy in which protons are directed at a tumor. The radiation dose that is given through protons is very precise, and limits the exposure of normal tissues. This allows the radiation dose delivered to the tumor to be increased beyond conventional radiation doses. The result is a better chance for curing cancer with fewer harmful side effects.

Unlike X-rays, protons can be manipulated to release most of their energy only when they reach their target. With more energy reaching the cancerous cells, more damage is administered by each burst of radiation and sensitive, healthy lung tissue is better protected from the effects of radiation.

Photodynamic Therapy (PDT)

Penn was the first health system in the Philadelphia area to begin researching the use of photodynamic therapy (PDT) to treat cancer. Also known as photoradiation therapy, phototherapy, or photochemotherapy, PDT brings together light-sensitive medication with low-level beams of light to destroy cancer cells.

Research has shown that certain chemicals, known as photosensitizing agents, can kill cancer cells when they are exposed to a particular type of light. PDT uses light-sensitive medication, called a photosensitizing agent, together with low-level beams of light to destroy cancer cells. The laser light used in PDT is directed through a fiber-optic strand placed close to the cancer cells.

For treating lung cancer, the fiber-optic strand is directed through a bronchoscope into the lungs. It is primarily used as a treatment for mesothelioma.

Stereotactic Radiosurgery (SBRT)

Stereotactic radiosurgery uses a large dose of radiation to focally destroy tumor tissue. The dose and area receiving the radiation are coordinated very precisely. Penn radiation oncologists use stereotactic radiosurgery to treat lung cancer diagnosed in the early stages. CyberKnife® and Gamma Knife® are two forms of SBRT.

Chemotherapy and Biologic Therapies

Penn medical oncologists administer systemic treatments, usually in the form of chemotherapy as well as newer targeted agents, and coordinate the complex care required for patients with lung cancer. Penn’s recent advanced in biologic therapies allow the lung cancer team to personalize the treatment for every patient.

To ensure that patients get treatment options from all disciplines and that care is optimized, they meet weekly with other members of Penn Medicine’s multidisciplinary lung cancer program to review patient cases and discuss treatment plans in detail.


Chemotherapy uses drugs to attack cancer cells, slowing or stopping their ability to grow and multiply. Chemotherapy is usually given:

  • Orally: Pills or capsules taken by mouth
  • Intravenously (IV): Injection into a vein
  • Intramuscularly (IM): Injection into a muscle
  • Subcutaneously: Injection under the skin

Chemotherapy is not a one-size-fits-all cancer treatment. The wide range of cancer-fighting drugs attack different types of cancer cells at varying stages of cell development. Penn medical oncologists are experts at determining which drug or combination of drugs will be the most effective in treating specific types of lung cancer. For example, the use of pemetrexed, one of the most active forms of chemotherapy, is restricted to patients with adenocarcinoma of the lung. In addition, Penn medical oncologists and the oncology nursing staff have developed protocols for reducing or minimizing the side effects of treatment.

Targeted Molecular Therapies

Targeted molecular therapy at Penn Medicine is a type of personalized medical therapy designed to treat cancer by interrupting unique molecular abnormalities that drive cancer growth. Targeted therapies are drugs that are designed to interfere with a specific biochemical pathway that is central to the development, growth and spread of that particular cancer.

Because not every type of lung cancer develops in the same way in every person, targeted molecular therapy is personalized to the individual. In some cancers the molecular targets are known, but in others these targets are still being identified. Identifying the molecular requires working closely with pathologists to carefully analyze the patient’s cancer pathology.

Two specific targets discovered in the past five years have changed the therapeutic landscape. ALK (+) tumors are highly responsive to a newly approved agent called crizotinib. EGFR mutation (+) tumors are very sensitive to erlotinib. Both of these agents are taken orally and neither is associated with the side effects typically seen with chemotherapy.

Penn oncologists in collaboration with molecular pathologists are devoted to discovering new biomarkers that can help drive treatment of lung cancer.

Immunotherapy and Vaccine Therapy

Immunotherapy and vaccine therapy are investigational therapies that have shown promise in repairing, stimulating or enhancing the immune system's responses. The body's immune system helps to prevent disease, but it can also play a role in preventing cancer from developing or spreading. The goal of immunotherapy is to enhance the body's natural defenses and its ability to fight cancer.

Immunotherapy often has fewer side effects than conventional cancer treatments because it uses the body's own immune system to:

  • Target specific cancer cells, thereby potentially avoiding damage to normal cells.
  • Make cancer cells easier for the immune system to recognize and destroy.
  • Prevent or slow tumor growth and spread of cancer cells.

Vaccine therapy is a type of immunotherapy that uses vaccines to teach the body’s immune system to attack and destroy cancer cells. The immune system does not naturally recognize cancer cells as being foreign so it does not mount an immune response against the tumor. Cancer vaccines stimulate the immune system to recognize and attack the cancer cells.

Cancer vaccines treat cancers that have already developed. They are intended to delay or stop cancer cell growth, shrink tumors, prevent cancer from coming back and eliminate cancer cells that have not been killed by other forms of treatment. Vaccines are sometimes made with cells from the patient's own tumor that are modified and given back to the patient to stop, destroy or delay the cancer.

Clinical Trials

More people are surviving cancer than ever before, and new advances provide hope that even greater discoveries lie ahead. Patients who choose Penn’s Lung Cancer Program for care have access to the latest research and clinical trials in planning their treatment.

Through research and clinical trials:

  • Diagnosing cancer has become more precise.
  • Radiation and surgical techniques have advanced.
  • Medications are more successful.
  • Combinations of medical, surgical and radiation therapy are improving our effectiveness and enhancing outcomes.
  • Strategies to address the late effects of cancer and its treatment are improving quality of life.

A complete listing of lung cancer clinical trials is available on the Abramson Cancer Center website.

Other Treatments

In addition to standard treatments and clinical trials, patients at Penn Medicine may wish to add additional therapies and treatments such as massage therapy, acupuncture and art therapy. These therapies do not have curative intent, and are designed to complement standard treatments, not take their place. They are meant to improve quality of life and well being during the cancer process.

Integrative Medicine and Wellness Programs

At Penn Medicine, integrative medicine and wellness services can supplement traditional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy. While conventional medicine plays a critical role in eradicating cancer, integrative medicine and wellness programs offer patients ways to enhance the quality of their lives, minimize or reduce the side effects of cancer and cancer treatment, and promote healing and recovery.

Cancer specialists at Penn Medicine are knowledgeable and supportive of complementary cancer treatments. The cancer team works with patients and families to integrate these supportive programs into the overall care plan, while ensuring the safety and health of patients.

The Abramson Cancer Center's range of integrative supportive services is designed to help patients cope with the cancer experience and improve their overall sense of well-being. Services include:

The Abramson Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital offers a variety of supportive care programs for patients and families, from diagnosis through survivorship. These programs are available at no cost to the patients treated at Pennsylvania Hospital, and some are open to patients treated elsewhere. These services include social work counseling, nutrition counseling, psychological counseling and spiritual counseling.

The Cancer Appetite and Rehabilitation Clinic (CARE Clinic) focuses on patients experiencing loss of appetite and weight. ;This multidisciplinary clinic includes clinicians from medicine, nursing, physical therapy, nutrition and speech/swallowing therapy.

The Supportive Care Clinic helps to manage cancer-related symptoms, and focuses on goals of care discussions between patients, families and clinicians.

Also integrative support programs include:

Support groups and educational programs are available at Pennsylvania Hospital and the Abramson Cancer Center throughout the year.

Palliative Care

Palliative care provides medical and non-medical interventions to ease the symptoms of cancer and its treatment. Palliative care includes physical, emotional and spiritual care that can enhance the quality of life for cancer patients.

Palliative care can be used to complement traditional cancer therapies, to treat symptoms or to improve quality of life when curative therapies are no longer an option.

Palliative care is an approach to patient care that can be integrated with curative therapies at any point from diagnosis to survivorship or end-of-life care.

Palliative care services include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery as well as psychological counseling, pain management, spiritual counseling, nutrition counseling, music therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, art therapy and support groups for patients and families. The goals of palliative care are to enhance the quality of life for cancer patients and their families, and provide emotional and spiritual support to enhance personal growth.

Palliative care services are offered at Pennsylvania Hospital, and at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Penn Home Care and Hospice Services

Penn Home Care and Hospice Services offer a full range of home health care needs by partnering three top-level home health care services under one roof:

Penn Home Care and Hospice Services offer an array of specialized therapies and medications for patients with cancer and cancer-related conditions.

Lung Cancer Survivorship

There are more than 12 million cancer survivors living today as a result of advances in cancer treatment. However, cancer treatments can result in physical, emotional and financial complications long after the therapy is complete. Survivorship programs at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center and the Abramson Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital are a distinct phase of lung cancer care and are designed to help patients' transition from their cancer treatment routine to a post-cancer care lifestyle.

Read more Lung Cancer Survivorship

Abramson Cancer Center VideoWatch Focus on Lung Cancer Conference - Get information on the latest advances in lung cancer risk, prevention, diagnosis, treatment, symptom management and psychosocial issues.

Abramson Cancer Center VideoMedia Hub for Lung Cancer, Mesothelioma and Related Disorders - Watch Videos!

Abramson Cancer Center Video

Watch Focus on Mesothelioma Conference - Get information on the latest advances in mesothelioma risk, prevention, diagnosis, treatment, symptom management and psychosocial issues.

Clinical Trials

Lung Cancer Trials

A Phase 1 Study of the Safety, Tolerability, Pharmacokinetics and Immunoregulatory Activity of... more