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Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment (Professional) (cont.)

Stage IIIB NSCLC Treatment

Based on the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Registry, the estimated incidence of stage IIIB NSCLC is 17.6%.[1] The anticipated 5-year survival for the vast majority of patients who present with clinical stage IIIB NSCLC is 3% to 7%.[2] In small case series, selected patients with T4, N0-1 disease, solely as the result of satellite tumor nodule(s) within the primary lobe, have been reported to have 5-year survival rates of 20%.[3,4][Level of evidence: 3iiiA]

Standard Treatment Options for Stage IIIB NSCLC

Standard treatment options for stage IIIB NSCLC include the following:

  1. Sequential or concurrent chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
  2. Chemotherapy followed by surgery (for selected patients).
  3. Radiation therapy alone.
    • For treatment of locally advanced unresectable tumor in patients who are not candidates for chemotherapy.
    • For patients requiring palliative treatment.

In general, patients with stage IIIB NSCLC do not benefit from surgery alone and are best managed by initial chemotherapy, chemotherapy plus radiation therapy, or radiation therapy alone, depending on the following:

  • Sites of tumor involvement.
  • The patient's performance status (PS).

Most patients with excellent PS are candidates for combined modality chemotherapy and radiation therapy with the following exceptions:

  • Selected patients with T4, N0 disease may be treated with combined modality therapy and surgery similar to patients with superior sulcus tumors.

Sequential or concurrent chemotherapy and radiation therapy

Many randomized studies of patients with unresectable stage III NSCLC show that treatment with preoperative or concurrent cisplatin-based chemotherapy and radiation therapy to the chest is associated with improved survival compared with treatment that uses radiation therapy alone. Although patients with unresectable stage IIIB disease may benefit from radiation therapy, long-term outcomes have generally been poor, often the result of local and systemic relapse. The addition of sequential and concurrent chemotherapy to radiation therapy has been evaluated in prospective randomized trials.

Evidence (sequential or concurrent chemotherapy and radiation therapy):

  1. A meta-analysis of patient data from 11 randomized clinical trials showed the following:[5]
    1. Cisplatin-based combinations plus radiation therapy resulted in a 10% reduction in the risk of death compared with radiation therapy alone.[5][Level of evidence: 1iiA]
  2. A meta-analysis of 13 trials (based on 2,214 evaluable patients) showed the following:[6]
    1. The addition of concurrent chemotherapy to radical radiation therapy reduced the risk of death at 2 years (relative risk [RR], 0.93; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.88–0.98; P = .01).
    2. For the 11 trials with platinum-based chemotherapy, RR was 0.93 (95% CI, 0.87–0.99; P = .02).[6]
  3. A meta-analysis of individual data from 1,764 patients evaluated nine trials.[7]
    1. The hazard ratio of death among patients treated with radiation therapy and chemotherapy compared with radiation therapy alone was 0.89 (95% CI, 0.81–0.98; P = .02) corresponding to an absolute benefit of chemotherapy of 4% at 2 years.
    2. The combination of platinum with etoposide seemed more effective than platinum alone. Concomitant platinum-based chemotherapy and radiation therapy may improve survival of patients with locally advanced NSCLC. However, the available data are insufficient to accurately define the size of such a potential treatment benefit and the optimal schedule of chemotherapy.[7]
  4. The results from two randomized trials (including RTOG-9410) and a meta-analysis indicate that concurrent chemotherapy and radiation therapy provide greater survival benefit, albeit with more toxic effects, than sequential chemotherapy and radiation therapy.[8,9,10][Level of evidence: 1iiA]
    1. In the first trial, the combination of mitomycin C, vindesine, and cisplatin were given concurrently with split-course daily radiation therapy to 56 Gy compared with chemotherapy followed by continuous daily radiation therapy to 56 Gy.[8]
      • Five-year overall survival (OS) favored concurrent therapy (27% vs. 9%).
      • Myelosuppression was greater among patients in the concurrent arm, but treatment-related mortality was less than 1% in both arms.[8]
    2. In the second trial, 610 patients were randomly assigned to sequential chemotherapy with cisplatin and vinblastine followed by 60 Gy of radiation therapy, concurrent chemotherapy, or concurrent chemotherapy with cisplatin and vinblastine with twice-daily radiation therapy.[10]
      • Median and 4-year survival were superior in the concurrent chemotherapy with daily radiation therapy arm (17 mo vs. 14.6 mo and 21% vs. 12% for sequential regimen [P = .046]).
    3. Two smaller studies also reported OS results that favored concurrent over sequential chemotherapy and radiation, although the results did not reach statistical significance.[10][Level of evidence: 1iiA][11]
  5. A meta-analysis of three trials evaluated concurrent versus sequential treatment (711 patients).[6]
    1. The analysis indicated a significant benefit of concurrent versus sequential treatment (RR, 0.86; 95% CI, 0.78–0.95; P = .003). All used cisplatin-based regimens and once-daily radiation therapy.[6]
    2. More deaths (3% overall) were reported in the concurrent arm, but this did not reach statistical significance (RR, 1.60; CI, 0.75–3.44; P = .2).
    3. There was more acute esophagitis (grade 3 or worse) with concurrent treatment (range = 17%–26%) compared with sequential treatment (range = 0%–4%; RR, 6.77; P = .001). Overall, the incidence of neutropenia (grade 3 or worse) was similar in both arms.

Radiation therapy alone

For treatment of locally advanced unresectable tumor

Radiation therapy alone, administered sequentially or concurrently with chemotherapy, may provide benefit to patients with locally advanced unresectable stage III NSCLC. However, combination chemoradiation therapy delivered concurrently provides the greatest benefit in survival with increase in toxic effects.


Radiation therapy with traditional dose and fractionation schedules (1.8 Gy–2.0 Gy per fraction per day to 60 Gy–70 Gy in 6–7 weeks) results in reproducible long-term survival benefit in 5% to 10% of patients and significant palliation of symptoms.[12]

Evidence (radiation therapy for locally advanced unresectable tumor):

  1. One prospective randomized clinical study showed the following:
    • Radiation therapy given as three daily fractions improved OS compared with radiation therapy given as one daily fraction.[13][Level of evidence: 1iiA]
    • Patterns of failure for patients treated with radiation therapy alone included both locoregional and distant failures.

For palliative treatment

Radiation therapy may be effective in palliating symptomatic local involvement with NSCLC, such as the following:

  • Tracheal, esophageal, or bronchial compression.
  • Pain.
  • Vocal cord paralysis.
  • Hemoptysis.
  • Superior vena cava syndrome.

In some cases, endobronchial laser therapy and/or brachytherapy has been used to alleviate proximal obstructing lesions.[14]

Evidence (radiation therapy for palliative treatment):

  1. A systematic review identified six randomized trials of high-dose rate brachytherapy (HDREB) alone or with external-beam radiation therapy (EBRT) or laser therapy.[15]
    • Better overall symptom palliation and fewer re-treatments were required in previously untreated patients using EBRT alone.[15][Level of evidence: 1iiC]
    • HDREB provided palliation of symptomatic patients with recurrent endobronchial obstruction previously treated by EBRT, when it was technically feasible.
    • Although EBRT is frequently prescribed for symptom palliation, there is no consensus about when the fractionation scheme should be used.
    • Although different multifraction regimens appear to provide similar symptom relief,[16,17,18,19,20,21] single-fraction radiation may be insufficient for symptom relief compared with hypofractionated or standard regimens, as shown in the NCIC Clinical Trials' Group trial (NCT00003685).[18][Level of evidence: 1iiC]
    • Evidence of a modest increase in survival in patients with better PS given high-dose radiation therapy is available.[16,17][Level of evidence: 1iiA]

Patients with stage IIIB disease with poor PS are candidates for chest radiation therapy to palliate pulmonary symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath, hemoptysis, or pain).[12][Level of evidence: 3iiiC] (Refer to the PDQ summaries on Cardiopulmonary Syndromes and Pain for more information.)

Treatment Options Under Clinical Evaluation

Because of the poor overall results, patients with stage IIIB NSCLC are candidates for clinical trials, which may lead to improvement in the control of disease.

Treatment options under clinical evaluation include the following:

  1. New fractionation schedules.
  2. Radiosensitizers.
  3. Combined modality approaches.

Current Clinical Trials

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage IIIB non-small cell lung cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.

General information about clinical trials is also available from the NCI Web site.


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  8. Furuse K, Fukuoka M, Kawahara M, et al.: Phase III study of concurrent versus sequential thoracic radiotherapy in combination with mitomycin, vindesine, and cisplatin in unresectable stage III non-small-cell lung cancer. J Clin Oncol 17 (9): 2692-9, 1999.
  9. Curran WJ, Scott CB, Langer CJ, et al.: Long-term benefit is observed in a phase III comparison of sequential vs concurrent chemo-radiation for patients with unresected stage III nsclc: RTOG 9410. [Abstract] Proceedings of the American Society of Clinical Oncology 22: A-2499, 2003.
  10. Fournel P, Robinet G, Thomas P, et al.: Randomized phase III trial of sequential chemoradiotherapy compared with concurrent chemoradiotherapy in locally advanced non-small-cell lung cancer: Groupe Lyon-Saint-Etienne d'Oncologie Thoracique-Groupe Français de Pneumo-Cancérologie NPC 95-01 Study. J Clin Oncol 23 (25): 5910-7, 2005.
  11. Zatloukal P, Petruzelka L, Zemanova M, et al.: Concurrent versus sequential chemoradiotherapy with cisplatin and vinorelbine in locally advanced non-small cell lung cancer: a randomized study. Lung Cancer 46 (1): 87-98, 2004.
  12. Langendijk JA, ten Velde GP, Aaronson NK, et al.: Quality of life after palliative radiotherapy in non-small cell lung cancer: a prospective study. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys 47 (1): 149-55, 2000.
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  16. Sundstrøm S, Bremnes R, Aasebø U, et al.: Hypofractionated palliative radiotherapy (17 Gy per two fractions) in advanced non-small-cell lung carcinoma is comparable to standard fractionation for symptom control and survival: a national phase III trial. J Clin Oncol 22 (5): 801-10, 2004.
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