Treatment of Stage I - IIIA Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Cancer Connect

Medically reviewed by Dr. C.H. Weaver M.D. Medical Editor 1/2021

Stage I-IIIA non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLC) are considered surgically resectable and treated with a combination of surgery and systemic therapy consisting of chemotherapy, immunotherapy and/or precision cancer medicines. Stage I is a cancer that is located in only one lung and has not spread to the adjacent lymph nodes or outside the chest - surgical removal of the cancer results in over 60% of patients surviving without evidence of cancer recurrence within 5 years of treatment. Stage II cancers are located in one lung and may involve lymph nodes on the same side of the chest that do not include lymph nodes in the mediastinum.

Systemic chemotherapy improves survival for patients with stage I - IIIA NSCLC when compared to treatment with surgery alone and is now considered standard of care. Efforts are underway to evaluate newer precision cancer medicines that target cancer causing mutations to further improve the outcome of individuals with early stage NSCLC. The precision cancer medicine Tagrisso improves the outcomes of EGFR mutated NSCLC and patients should ensure NGS-biomarker testing is performed to identify treatable cancer driving mutations. (1,2,9,10)

The following is a general overview of treatment for surgically resectable NSCLC. The information on this website is intended to help educate patients about their treatment options and to facilitate a mutual or shared decision-making process with their treating cancer physician.


For patients with NSCLC that is limited to the chest surgical resection is not only an important therapeutic modality, but in many cases, the most effective method of controlling the disease. Patients with stages I-IIIA localized cancer are considered to have early stage disease and are almost always treated with surgery. The following are the types of surgical procedures that may be performed.

Thoracotomy: Thoracotomy is a surgical procedure to open the chest and remove cancerous lung tissue. This surgical procedure is performed under general anesthesia.

Surgical removal of the cancer may be accomplished by removing the entire lung (pneumonectomy), a lobe of the lung (lobectomy) or even a small segment of the lung (segmentectomy). In general, the less lung that is removed, the greater the preservation of lung function and the lower the risk of major side effects from the surgery. On the other hand, if too little lung is removed, there is an increased chance of a local cancer recurrence. Currently, most physicians recommend a lobectomy. A patient’s general overall condition, age and location of the cancer are other factors that may influence the type of surgery performed and the side effects associated with the surgery. Prior to surgery, patients should carefully discuss the risks and benefits of removing the cancer with their surgeon.

When surgery is conducted in patients with early-stage NSCLC, physicians often remove nearby lymph nodes and send them to the laboratory to determine if they contain cancer cells. The number of lymph nodes removed is often based on physician preference. Results from a recent study conducted by researchers in New York indicate that patients with a larger number of sampled lymph nodes may be more accurately staged and receive more appropriate therapy, ultimately leading to improved overall and cancer-free survival. These researchers suggest that 6 or more lymph nodes should be surgically removed and evaluated in all patients with NSCLC undergoing surgery to remove cancer.(3)

Video-Assisted Thorascopic Surgery (VATS): This is a form of minimally invasive surgery that utilizes a television camera. The advantages of the camera-aided procedures are that smaller incisions can be used and there is no need to cut through a rib, which is necessary for conventional thoracotomy. This results in quicker, less intrusive surgery, with a much smaller scar. However, using these new procedures requires significant skill and a great deal of training. There is less, or at least different, visibility with VATS. If a serious problem arises, VATS can be converted to an open or traditional procedure, creating a small additional risk.

Systemic Therapy: Precision Cancer Medicine, Chemotherapy, and Immunotherapy

Systemic therapy is any treatment directed at destroying cancer cells throughout the body. Some patients with early stage cancer already have small amounts of cancer that have spread outside the lungs. These cancer cells cannot be treated with surgery alone and require systemic treatment to decrease the chance of cancer recurrence. Systemic therapy can be administered after (adjuvant) or before (neoadjuvant) surgery.

  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is any treatment involving the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Cancer chemotherapy may consist of single drugs or combinations of drugs. A Canadian clinical study has demonstrated that adjuvant chemotherapy for early stage NSCLC increased the number of patients who lived 5 years or more from 54% to 69%, (1) and US researchers have demonstrated that adjuvant chemotherapy increased the number of patients who survived 3 years or more from 69% to 82%.(6) Chemotherapy drugs cannot tell the difference between a cancer cell and a healthy cell. Therefore, chemotherapy often affects the body’s normal tissues and organs, which can result in complications or side effects. In order to more specifically target the cancer and avoid unwanted side effects researchers are increasingly using precision cancer medicines that target specific cancer causing mutations.
  • Precision Cancer Medicines: Through genomic-biomarker testing performed on a biopsy of the cancer or from a blood sample doctors are increasingly able to define the genomic alterations in a cancers DNA that is driving the growth of a specific cancer. Once a genetic abnormality is identified, a precision medicine can be designed to target a specific mutation or other cancer-related change in the DNA programming of the cancer cells. Precision cancer medicine uses targeted drugs and immunotherapies engineered to directly attack the cancer cells with specific abnormalities, leaving normal cells largely unharmed.
  • EGFR positive NSCLC: Approximately 10-15% of NSCLC patients in the US and Europe, and 30-40% of patients in Asia have epidermal growth factor receptor - mutated (EGFRm) NSCLC. These patients are particularly sensitive to treatment with precision cancer medicines known as EGFR-tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) which block the cell-signaling pathways that drive the growth of EGFR expressing lung cancer cells. Tagrisso (osimertinib) is a third-generation, irreversible EGFR-TKI designed to inhibit both EGFR-sensitizing and EGFR T790M-resistance mutations, with clinical activity against CNS metastases. In the Phase III ADAURA clinical trial Tagrisso treatment for up to three years was compared to placebo as adjuvant therapy in patients with Stage IB, II and IIIA EGFRm NSCLC following complete cancer resection and found to delay cancer progression leading to FDA approval.
  • Immunotherapy: Precision immunotherapy treatment of cancer has also progressed considerably over the past few decades and has now become a standard treatment. The immune system is a network of cells, tissues, and biologic substances that defend the body against viruses, bacteria, and cancer. The immune system recognizes cancer cells as foreign and can eliminate them or keep them in check up to a point. Cancer cells are very good at finding ways to avoid immune destruction, however, so the goal of immunotherapy is to help the immune system eliminate cancer cells by either activating the immune system directly or inhibiting the mechanisms of suppression of the cancer.

Neoadjuvant therapy is any systemic treatment that is delivered before surgery with the goal of providing immediate treatment and reducing the size of the cancer for easier resection. Neoadjuvant chemotherapy reduces the time to cancer recurrence and improves overall survival in patients with NSCLC. (7) Neoadjuvant immunotherapy also appears effective. The CheckMate -816 clinical trial demonstrated benefit with an immune checkpoint inhibitor in combination with chemotherapy as a neoadjuvant treatment in select patients with resectable NSCLC. (17) Patients should discuss the pros and cons of neoadjuvant compared to adjuvant systemic therapy with their physician.

Radiation Therapy

Some patients with lung cancer are not able to undergo the surgery to remove their cancer. Advanced age and other medical conditions such as heart disease and diminished lung capacity make it more difficult for these patients to withstand surgery. For these patients, staging of their cancer may be relatively precise using newer scanning techniques, including positron emission tomography (PET) and they are often offered radiation therapy as treatment for their cancer.

Two studies have demonstrated that patients with early stage NSCLC who are not able to, or do not wish to undergo surgery may be treated with radiation therapy alone. One of these was an extensive review of the literature since the mid-1980’s and the other was a recently conducted clinical trial that evaluated the use of radiation administered twice-daily for approximately 5 weeks. Results indicated that radiation therapy alone produced an average survival time of over 30 and 34 months, respectively.(4,5)

Based on encouraging results in stage IIIB NSCLC researchers are evaluating a combination of targeted radiation therapy with immunotherapy in the PACIFIC clinical trial for individuals unable or unwilling to undergo surgery.

Treatment Follow-up

Although patients with NSCLC have a relatively high rate of long-term survival following treatment some patients are still at risk for developing a cancer recurrence, and others may still develop another lung cancer if lifestyle or other factors that increase their risk of developing cancer have not been changed. Researchers have been evaluating different screening methods and schedules for these patients in order to detect recurrent or second cancers early, when they are most treatable.

Researchers from the City of Hope National Medical Center recently determined that annual CT scans and chest x-rays three times per year may detect early second cancers in patients with previously treated NSCLC who appeared to be cured.(8)

Strategies to Improve Non Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment

Currently, there are several areas of active exploration aimed at improving the treatment of stage I - IIIA NSCLC which are mainly available in clinical trials. Individuals should consider undergoing genomic biomarker testing to see if their cancer has a "targetable" cancer driving mutation that can be treated with a precision cancer medicine.

Individuals without cancer driving mutations.

The combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy improves overall survival for patients with advanced NSCLC. (1) Precision immunotherapy treatment of cancer has progressed considerably over the past few decades and has now become a standard treatment for advanced NSCLC. Researchers are mainly focused on two promising types of immunotherapy. One type creates a new, individualized treatment for each patient by removing some of the person’s immune cells, altering them genetically to kill cancer, and then infusing them back into the bloodstream. The other uses precision immunotherapy medications to enhance the immune systems response to the cancer. Both are being evaluated in clinical trials. (13) Learn more…

Neoadjuvant chemotherapy and immunotherapy administered to patients with higher levels of PD-L1 appears to improve outcomes in patients with NSCLC. PD-1 and PD -L1 are proteins that inhibit certain types of immune responses, allowing cancer cells to evade an attack by the body’s immune cells. Precision immunotherapy drugs called checkpoint inhibitor block the PD-1 pathway and enhance the ability of the immune system to fight cancer. By blocking the binding of the PD-L1 ligand these drugs restore an immune cells’ ability to recognize and fight the lung cancer cells. Overall two thirds of lung cancer patients have some expression of PD-1, and one third are “high expressers” meaning over 50% of the tested tumor expresses PD-1. A diagnostic test to measure the level of PD-L1 is available and checkpoint inhibitors are a standard treatment in the management of advanced lung cancer because they improve survival.

CheckMate -816 is a clinical trial comparing Opdivo immunotherapy plus chemotherapy to chemotherapy alone as neoadjuvant treatment in patients with resectable NSCLC. Opdivo is an immune checkpoint inhibitor that helps to restore the body’s immune system in fighting cancer by releasing checkpoints that cancer uses to shut down the immune system. In the trial 358 patients were treated with platinum chemotherapy every three weeks with or without Opvido followed by surgery. In the trial, significantly more patients treated with Opdivo plus chemotherapy before surgery showed no evidence of cancer cells in their resected tissue compared to those treated with chemotherapy alone. A full evaluation of the available CheckMate -816 data will be presented at an upcoming medical conference.

The NEOSTAR clinical trial tested the administration of Opdivo with or without Yervoy (ipilimumab), prior to surgery in 44 patients with with operable stage IA to IIIA NSCLC between June 2017 and November 2018. Overall, 41 patients completed the planned three doses of therapy prior to surgery. Eight of 21 treated patients (38%) achieved a pathological complete response following Opdivo-Yervoy compared to only 10%, treated with Yervoy alone.

The researchers analyzed the gut microbiome and found that pathologic response to combination therapy was associated with the presence of certain fecal microbes that also have been correlated with immunotherapy response in melanoma and other cancers.(18)

Precision Cancer Medicines

A targeted or precision therapy is one that is designed to treat only the cancer cells and minimize damage to normal, healthy cells. Precision cancer medicines that “target” cancer cells offer the advantage of reduced treatment-related side effects and improved outcomes and have become standard treatment for more advanced NSCLC. Therapies directed at mutations in the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and the ALK gene have improved outcomes in the treatment of advanced NSCLC and are now being evaluated in stage I-IIIA disease.

  • ALCHEMIST- the Adjuvant Lung Cancer Enrichment Marker Identification and Sequencing Trials – represents three integrated, precision medicine trials that are designed to identify people with early-stage lung cancer who have tumors that harbor EGFR and ALK gene alterations and evaluate whether drug treatments targeted against those molecular changes can lead to improved survival compared to current standard of care therapy alone.
  • Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR): Mutations in the EGFR gene may affect how NSCLC responds to certain drugs. EGFR contributes to the growth of several types of cancer, and drugs that block the activity of EGFR can slow cancer growth. EGFR mutations are most common in people of Asian ethnicity, women, never-smokers, and those with a type of lung cancer known as adenocarcinoma. Researchers have reported that EFGR positive individuals treated with Tagrisso or Tarceva® plus chemotherapy have delayed time to cancer progression and improved survival compared to those treated with placebo or chemotherapy alone respectively. (9,10,16)
  • Anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) gene: Up to 7% of NSCLC’s have an abnormal version of the ALK gene that contributes to the growth and development of cancer. Lung cancers with this abnormality typically occur in non-smokers. The abnormal gene contributes to the growth and development of cancer cells. Medicines have been developed that target the ALK gene mutation and produced very promising rates of response in more advanced cancers.(11,12)

New chemotherapy regimens: Current clinical trials are focusing on combining chemotherapy drugs known to be active in advanced NSCLC, such as Gemzar®, Taxotere®, paclitaxel, Paraplatin®, and Platinol® into treatment regimens with newer cancer killing medicines in order to further improve survival duration and decrease side effects in both the adjuvant and neoadjuvant setting.

Cryotherapy: Cryotherapy is a technique that kills cancer cells by freezing them with sub-zero temperatures. During this procedure, hollow steel probes are placed inside and surrounding the cancer. Liquid nitrogen is then circulated through the probes, freezing the cancer cells and creating a ball of ice that surrounds the cancer. Once an adequate ice ball is formed, heated nitrogen is circulated through the probes. This process is then repeated.

Researchers from France conducted a clinical trial evaluating cryotherapy for the treatment of early stage lung cancer. Cryotherapy was performed through a rigid bronchoscope (a lighted tube that is placed into the bronchi). In this trial, 35 patients with early stage lung cancer received cryotherapy, 20% of whom had multiple locations of early stage lung cancer. One year following treatment, 91% of patients had a complete disappearance of cancer. Four years following treatment, only 10 patients experienced a local cancer recurrence. The treatment was well tolerated by these patients.(15)

Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT): IGRT involves a computed tomography (CT) scanner and computer modeling to accurately determine the size and depth of the cancer. In addition, this technique determines the measurement of the cancer through all stages of respiration and can direct the radiation more precisely while the patient is breathing normally. Researchers from Japan recently concluded that IGRT appears to be an effective and well tolerated radiation technique for patients with inoperable stage I NSCLC with poor lung function. A distinct advantage of IGRT is that patients do not have to hold their breath during the treatment, which is necessary for standard radiation therapy. This is important because many patients with lung cancer have poor lung function and are not able to hold their breath during treatment.

Of the 21 patients with stage I NSCLC involved in this clinical trial, 5 experienced a complete disappearance of detectable cancer, 11 patients experienced at least a 50% reduction in the volume of their cancer, and one patient had progressive disease following therapy. Approximately two years following therapy, only 5 patients had experienced a cancer recurrence. The treatment was well tolerated with no major side effects reported. Further clinical trials will are necessary to determine the role of IGRT in the clinical setting and demonstrate whether chemotherapy prior to or following radiation therapy may further improve long-term outcomes.(16)

Next: Surgery for Non Small Cell Lung Cancer

Next: Radiation Therapy for Non Small Cell Lung Cancer

Next: Precision Cancer Medicine for Non Small Cell Lung Cancer


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  16. Tagrisso – First Precision Medicine Approved for Treatment of Early Stage NSCLC
  17. Opdivo (nivolumab) Plus Chemotherapy Shows Statistically Significant Improvement in Pathologic Complete Response as Neoadjuvant Treatment of Resectable Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer in Phase 3 CheckMate-816 Trial [news release]. Princeton, NJ. Published October 7, 2020. Accessed October 7, 2020.
Neoadjuvant nivolumab or nivolumab plus ipilimumab in operable non-small cell lung cancer: the phase 2 randomized NEOSTAR trial
Neoadjuvant nivolumab or nivolumab plus ipilimumab in operable non-small cell lung cancer: the phase 2 randomized NEOSTAR trial

Ipilimumab improves clinical outcomes when combined with nivolumab in metastatic non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), but its efficacy and impact on the immune microenvironment in operable NSCLC remain unclear. We report the results of the phase 2 randomized NEOSTAR trial (NCT03158129) of neoadjuvant nivolumab or nivolumab + ipilimumab followed by surgery in 44 patients with operable NSCLC, using major pathologic response (MPR) as the primary endpoint. The MPR rate for each treatment arm was tested against historical controls of neoadjuvant chemotherapy. The nivolumab + ipilimumab arm met the prespecified primary endpoint threshold of 6 MPRs in 21 patients, achieving a 38% MPR rate (8/21). We observed a 22% MPR rate (5/23) in the nivolumab arm. In 37 patients resected on trial, nivolumab and nivolumab + ipilimumab produced MPR rates of 24% (5/21) and 50% (8/16), respectively. Compared with nivolumab, nivolumab + ipilimumab resulted in higher pathologic complete response rates (10% versus 38%), less viable tumor (median 50% versus 9%), and greater frequencies of effector, tissue-resident memory and effector memory T cells. Increased abundance of gut Ruminococcus and Akkermansia spp. was associated with MPR to dual therapy. Our data indicate that neoadjuvant nivolumab + ipilimumab-based therapy enhances pathologic responses, tumor immune infiltrates and immunologic memory, and merits further investigation in operable NSCLC. Neoadjuvant treatment with nivolumab plus ipilimumab is well tolerated and demonstrates clinical efficacy in patients with early stage lung cancer.


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