What If My Cancer Is Inoperable?

People mistakenly believe that “inoperable” equals “incurable” when it comes to lung cancer. If lung cancer is inoperable, it indicates that surgery will not be able to remove it. But rest assured that other therapy methods exist that can reduce the cancer, halt its progression, treat its symptoms, or even cure it completely.


Anne Jäkel

Roland Schäfli


And if my lung cancer is inoperable?

Following a diagnosis of an inoperable tumour, knowing your options and how to proceed might help you feel more at peace and powerful in your present position.

Determining the kind and stage of cancer as early as feasible is critical for surgical intervention — and patient survival. Lung cancer surgery is typically only indicated if the cancer has not spread beyond the lung. It’s extremely difficult to diagnose in its early stages. Around 40% of lung cancer patients are diagnosed at an advanced stage, when surgery isn’t indicated anymore. [1]

A cancer diagnosis may be distressing in any case but discovering that your lung cancer is inoperable might make things seem bleak. You will very certainly come across terms that you do not understand during the testing, diagnosis, and grading of cancer. 

What does “inoperable” mean?

Inoperable does not mean incurable, untreatable or terminal.

A doctor may declare a tumour inoperable if the dangers of surgery outweigh the benefits of alternative therapies. This isn’t to say that there aren’t alternative therapeutic choices. Other procedures can help reduce the cancer, limit its development, and treat its symptoms.

Why is it inoperable?

Because there are several kinds of lung cancer, there are a variety of situations that might render your disease inoperable. Not everyone with lung cancer is a good surgical candidate. People with bleeding disorders or other pre-existing medical problems, for example, may be at an increased risk of complications or death after surgery.

A diagnosis of small cell cancer is another probable explanation for having an inoperable lung cancer. Small cell lung tumours account for around 15% of all lung cancer occurrences and are aggressive, thus surgery is generally unsuccessful. Other treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, tend to work better for certain tumours.

Why is the stage important?

Whether you are a good candidate for surgery will depend on the stage of your cancer. For example, if you have stage I lung cancer, your cancer is limited to the lung. The cancer has spread to surrounding lymph nodes in stage II cancer. The cancer has progressed to more lymph nodes in stage III-a, but it is still on the same side of the chest. Stage III-b cancer implies the cancer has progressed to the lymph nodes on the other side of the chest, while Stage IV cancer means the disease has spread to the other lung and other internal organs. Surgery may be a possibility for stages I, II, and III-a, however it is not usually advised for stages III-b and IV. [2]

Because the tumour is too close to other essential tissues, such as major arteries, lung cancer may be inoperable in some situations. Attempting to remove the tumour is extremely dangerous in this situation.

What are the treatment options?

Although learning that your lung cancer is inoperable might be frightening, it does not rule out the possibility of other treatments. Other therapies may, in fact, reduce the tumour and make surgery a realistic choice in some circumstances. Even if you are unable to treat your cancer with surgery in the future, you may still be able to reduce the tumour, control your symptoms, prevent it from spreading, or achieve remission.

What does “Chemo” do?

Chemotherapy is one of the most effective therapies for lung cancer. It delivers cancer-fighting medicines through an intravenous drip over a lengthy period of time. The drug enters the lungs and kills cancer cells while slowing or preventing the spread of cancer to other regions. Chemotherapy can have a lot of side effects since it affects healthy tissues as well, but your doctor will prescribe treatment if the benefits exceed the side effects.

What is radiotherapy?

Radiation is another evidence-based treatment that has shown to be quite successful in the treatment of lung cancer. It applies focused beams of radiation towards the area of the body where the cancer is situated in an attempt to destroy or reduce the tumour. Radiation treatment can completely eliminate parts of tumours, allowing surgery to be avoided. It is one of the most common cancer treatment methods when combined with chemotherapy.

How good is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is still in its early stages, but it has the potential to revolutionise lung cancer treatment. It is the process of utilising a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer, and it is effective in some lung cancer cases. [3] Immunotherapy is only offered for non-small cell lung cancers at the moment, and it may not be appropriate for everyone. It’s usually only given after attempting other treatments like chemotherapy or radiation, although it can be used in conjunction with them as well.

How do targeted therapies work?

Newer, more targeted therapies may be able to treat altered cells or impair the blood supply that allows them to thrive. Doctors can detect abnormalities in cancer cells via molecular profiling (gene testing). They can then prescribe targeted treatment medicines to halt the growth of mutant cancer cells.

This form of treatment has the benefit of just affecting malignant cells while leaving healthy cells alone. These treatments, however, are still in their early stages and may not be offered in many locations.

Are there alternative options?

Alternative and integrative medicine treatment approaches attempt to meet a person’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual requirements. These include mind-body medicine (meditation, yoga, and biofeedback), biology-based practises (vitamins, herbs, and special diets), touch-based practises (massage, chiropractic care, and reflexology), energy work (reiki, tai chi, and therapeutic touch), and whole medical systems (Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and naturopathic medicine) and may be useful in the treatment of inoperable lung tumours in some circumstances. However, they should be used in conjunction with conventional evidence-based treatments, not as a replacement for them.

What is holistic nutrition?

Holistic nutrition is the study of your individual nutritional needs as well as the impact your food plays in lung cancer treatment and manifestation. Because each holistic treatment plan is personalised to the individual, it is difficult to propose a single holistic treatment strategy. Patients may benefit from a diet rich in lean and plant-based protein, as well as a broad range of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. 

During treatment, some patients use vitamin supplements to improve their general health. Because there are so many distinct forms of lung cancer, it’s hard to cover all of the benefits and drawbacks of supplements. It’s critical to talk to your doctor and a certified dietitian about any diet changes and supplements you want to use.

Are clinical trials available?

It’s important to have an open line of communication with your medical team about treatment choices throughout your therapy. For some patients, clinical trials may be a feasible alternative, especially if all other therapeutic options have been tried. These therapy alternatives aren’t generally available, but they represent unique or revolutionary cancer treatments that haven’t yet been approved for broad usage. If there is a new technique, medication, or therapy that may be helpful for your kind of lung cancer, your doctor can provide you further information.

For your kind of cancer, not all treatment choices will be successful or even possible. Keep in mind that each person is different, and some circumstances will influence the body’s response to the feasibility of a certain treatment plan. Your doctors suggests a treatment plan because they believe it is the best option based on its advantages and risks. Some alternative therapies may be effective in alleviating cancer symptoms, but they should all be addressed with your treating physician.

It’s important to remember that just because your cancer is inoperable doesn’t imply it’s untreatable or fatal. You might be able to reduce your tumour, manage its symptoms, stop it from spreading, or even go into remission. Based on the grade, stage, location, age, and overall condition of your cancer, your doctor will be able to tell you about your prognosis and treatment choices. It’s also crucial to keep in mind that your prognosis may vary over time depending on how your body reacts to different treatments.

Please let us remind you once more: don’t give up if your doctor says your lung cancer is inoperable.


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