Stage I Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer
Medically reviewed by Dr. C.H. Weaver M.D. Medical Editor (08/2018)
Stage I non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is a cancer that is located in only one lung and has not spread to the adjacent lymph nodes or outside the chest. The mainstay of treatment for patients diagnosed with a stage I NSCLC is surgical removal of the cancer. In general, surgical removal of stage I cancers results in over 60% of patients surviving without evidence of cancer recurrence within 5 years of treatment.
Administration of systemic therapy after surgery, referred to as adjuvant therapy improves survival for patients with stage I NSCLC when compared to treatment with surgery alone and is now considered standard of care.1,2 Efforts are underway to evaluate new precision cancer medicines to further improve the outcome of individuals with early stage NSCLC.
The following is a general overview of treatment for stage I 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 have cancer 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-II localized cancer without spread to lymph nodes are considered to have early stage lung cancer and are almost always treated with surgery. The following are the types of surgical procedures that may be performed in patients with stage I NSCLC.
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 stage I 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.
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 stages I-II 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 five weeks. Results indicated that radiation therapy alone produced an average survival time of over 30 and 34 months, respectively.4,5
Systemic Adjuvant Therapy
Adjuvant therapy is any additional treatment administered after surgery in order to eliminate remaining cancer cells to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. Because patients with stage I NSCLC may already have small amounts of cancer that have spread outside the lung that cannot be detected with any of the currently available tests adjuvant therapy is typically offered. A Canadian clinical study has demonstrated that adjuvant chemotherapy increased the number of patients who lived 5 years or more from 54% to 69%,1and US researchers have demonstrated that adjuvant chemotherapy increased the number of patients who survived 3 years or more from 69% to 82%.6
Neoadjuvant chemotherapy: Neoadjuvant therapy is chemotherapy that is delivered before surgery with the goal of providing immediate treatment and reducing the size of the cancer for easier resection.
A meta-analysis that included data from 15 eligible randomized controlled trials involving a total of 2,385 patients has revealed that neoadjuvant chemotherapy reduces the time to cancer recurrence and improves overall survival. Patients should also discuss the potential risks and benefits of receiving chemotherapy prior to surgery with their treating physician.7
Although patients with stage I 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 stage I NSCLC who appeared to be cured.8
Strategies to Improve Non Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment
The progress that has been made in the treatment of NSCLC has resulted from improved development of treatments in patients with more advanced stages of cancer and participation in clinical trials. Currently, there are several areas of active exploration aimed at improving the treatment of stage I NSCLC.
Precision Cancer Medicine: 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. 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. One EGFR-targeted drug that has been shown to benefit selected patients with NSCLC is Tarceva® (erlotinib). Tarceva® is currently approved for the treatment of advanced NSCLC and as maintenance therapy after chemotherapy.9
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 Tarceva® plus chemotherapy have delayed time to cancer progression and improved survival compared to those treated with chemotherapy alone.9,10
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.
Angiogenesis inhibitors: A growing area of cancer research involves the inhibition of angiogenesis. Cancer cells require food, oxygen and proteins in order to grow and spread. These essential nutrients are transported to the cancer cells by blood vessels. Angiogenesis is the process of creating new blood vessels necessary to transport “food” to the cancer cells. Two of several key proteins that are necessary for the process of angiogenesis are called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs). VEGF causes endothelial cells (cells comprising the innermost layer of blood vessels) to replicate and migrate from existing blood vessels to the cancer. Endothelial cells secrete MMPs, which create an opening in existing tissues surrounding the cancer, allowing the endothelial cells to move near the cancer and form new blood vessels to “feed” the cancer. Researchers have been evaluating targeted treatments hinder or reduce the effects of VEGF and thus, slow cancer progression.
Avastin™ (Bevacizumab) is an angiogenesis inhibitor still being evaluated in clinical trials. It produces its anti-angiogenic effects by binding to VEGF and inhibiting or reducing the growth of new blood vessels necessary to promote cancer cell growth. The addition of Avastin™ to standard chemotherapy treatment is being evaluated in patients with NSCLC.13
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.14
Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT): IIGRT 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.15
1 The International Adjuvant Lung Trial Collaborative Group. Cisplatin-based adjuvant chemotherapy in patients with completely resected Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. New England Journal of Medicine. 2004;350:351-360.
4 Jeremic B, Calssen J, Bamberg M. Radiotherapy alone in technically operable, medically inoperable, early-stage (I/II) non-small-cell lung cancer. International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, Physics2002;54:119.
5 Jeremic B, Calssen J, Bamberg M. Radiotherapy alone in technically operable, medically inoperable, early-stage (I/II) non-small-cell lung cancer. International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, Physics2002;54:119.
6 Strauss GM, Herndon J, Maddaus MA, et al. Randomized clinical trial of adjuvant chemotherapy with paclitaxel and carboplatin following resection in Stage IB non-small cell lung cancer: Report of Cancer and Leukemia Group B (CALGB) Protocol 9633. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2004;22:Suppl 14S: Abstract #7019.
7 NSCLC Meta-analysis Collaborative Group. Preoperative chemotherapy for non-small cell lung cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data. The Lancet. Published early online February 25, 2014. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62159-5
8 Lamong J, Kakuda J, Smith D, et al. Systematic postoperative radiologic follow-up in patients with non-small cell lung cancer for detecting second primary lung cancer in stage IA. Archives of Surgery2002;137:935-939.
9 Zhou C, Wu Y-L, Chen G et al. Erlotinib versus chemotherapy as first-line treatment for patients with advanced EGFR mutation-positive non-small-cell lung cancer (OPTIMAL, CTONG-0802): A multicentre, open-label, randomized, phase 3 study. Lancet Oncology. Early online publication July 22, 2011.
10 OSI Pharmaceuticals. FDA Approves Tarceva as a Maintenance Therapy for Advanced Non-small Cell Lung Cancer. Available at: http://investor.osip.com/releasedetail.cfm?ReleaseID=460783. Accessed April 19, 2010.
13 Second Phase III Study of Avastin Plus Chemotherapy Shows Improved Progression-Free Survival in First-Line Non-Squamous, Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. Available at: http://www.gene.com/gene/news/press-releases/display.do?method=detail&id=10727.
15 Fukumoto S, Shirato H, Shimzu S, et al. Small-volume image-guided radiotherapy using hypofractionated, coplanar, and noncoplanar multiple fields for patients with inoperable Stage I non-small cell lung carcinomas. Cancer. 2002;95:1546-1553.