The notorious and always welcomed words after surgery are, "we got it all", providing great relief to the patients and families who hear the phrase. We know that surgeons can take out all identifiable disease that they see when they do surgery, and that there is no evidence of visible disease on CT scans or on newer imaging techniques like PET scans. But why do we see that approximately 30% of patients with stage I NSCLC or about 50% of patients with stage II NSCLC recur?
I've discussed the general management of metastatic lung cancer, both SCLC and NSCLC, but there are also several common complications that sometimes require particular management. Bone metastases, for instance, may be treated by the same "whole body" approach with chemotherapy that treats other areas of tumor involvement, but may also benefit from additional approaches.
Purists have considered mediastinoscopy, which is invasive staging of the mediastinum through a small incision just at the base of the neck to get down behind the sternum, or breastbone, to be the "gold standard" for determining whether lymph nodes in the mediastinum, or middle of the chest, is involved with a cancer. The procedure is as shown:
It's only been in the past few years that we have begun to appreciate that there may be many different subgroups of patients who fit within the broader lung cancer population. We now have begun to see differences in the safety and/or activity of certain drugs in never-smokers vs. smokers, patients with adenocarcinomas (and especially bronchioloalveolar carcinoma, or BAC)vs. squamous cell carcinomas or other subtypes, and even in women compared with men.
For patients with locally advanced NSCLC, the question of whether to pursue a surgical or a non-surgical approach has a great deal to do with the extent of mediastinal (middle of the chest) lymph node involvement. The mediastinal nodes are shown here:
As a medical oncologist, my primary role is to direct general management plans for many cancer patients and to develop chemotherapy and targeted therapy regimens. These regimens are sometimes directly administered through my office, and sometimes are coordinated with oncologists closer to a patient's home. The treatment is pretty much a cookbook approach, so it's really the same no matter who administers it.