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Journal of Thoracic Oncology:
doi: 10.1097/JTO.0000000000000152
Original Articles

National Patterns of Care and Outcomes After Combined Modality Therapy for Stage IIIA Non–Small-Cell Lung Cancer

Patel, Aalok P. BS*; Crabtree, Traves D. MD*; Bell, Jennifer M. BSN*; Guthrie, Tracey J. BSN*; Robinson, Clifford G. MD; Morgensztern, Daniel MD; Colditz, Graham A. MD, DrPH*; Kreisel, Daniel MD, PhD*; Krupnick, A. Sasha MD*; Bradley, Jeffrey D. MD*; Patterson, G. Alexander MD*; Meyers, Bryan F. MD, MPH*; Puri, Varun MD*

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Author Information

*Department of Surgery, Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery; Department of Radiation Oncology; and Department of Medicine, Division of Oncology, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO.

Disclosure: V.P. received grant support from NIH K07CA178120, K12CA167540-02 Paul Calabresi award. The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Address for correspondence: Varun Puri, MD, Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Washington University School of Medicine, Campus Box 8234, 660 S. Euclid Ave., St. Louis, MO 63110. E-mail:

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Introduction: The role of surgery in addition to chemotherapy and radiation for stage IIIA non–small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) remains controversial. Because there are limited data on the benefit from surgery in this setting, we evaluated the use of combined modality therapy nationally and explored the outcomes with and without the addition of surgery.

Methods: Patient variables and treatment-related outcomes were abstracted for patients with clinical stage IIIA NSCLC from the National Cancer Database. Patients receiving chemotherapy and radiation were compared with those undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery (CRS) in any sequence.

Results: Between 1998 and 2010, 61,339 patients underwent combined modality treatment for clinical stage IIIA NSCLC. Of these, 51,979 (84.7%) received chemotherapy and radiation while 9360 (15.3%) underwent CRS. Patients in the CRS group were younger, more likely female patients and Caucasians, and had smaller tumors and lower Charlson comorbidity scores. The 30-day surgical mortality was 200 of 8993 (2.2%). The median overall survival favored the CRS group in both unmatched (32.4 months versus 15.7 months, p < 0.001) and matched analysis based on patient characteristics (34.3 versus 18.4 months, p < 0.001).

Conclusions: There is significant heterogeneity in the treatment of stage IIIA NSCLC in the United States. Patients selected for surgery in addition to chemoradiation therapy seem to have better long-term survival.

In the United States, more than 220,000 new patients are diagnosed with lung cancer each year.1 Among those with newly diagnosed non–small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC), it is estimated that 27% of patients present with stage III disease, for which the 5-year overall survival (OS) is typically less than 20%.2,3

The most common treatment modality for stage IIIA NSCLC is a combination of chemotherapy and radiation, with studies suggesting a median survival of 16 to 28 months when both are administered concurrently.4,5 Although concurrent chemoradiation has been associated with increased toxicity relative to sequential treatment, it does provide a survival advantage.6,7 Surgical resection, in addition to chemotherapy and radiation, has been selectively offered to patients with stage IIIA lung cancer, and single-center studies report good outcomes with median survival up to 43 months and 5-year survival of 33%.8–11

Over the last decade, randomized trials have aimed to address the role of surgery in addition to chemotherapy and radiation in stage III NSCLC. In the INT-0139 trial, patients with stage IIIA NSCLC underwent concurrent induction chemoradiation therapy. Patients were then randomly assigned to the surgical group or the chemoradiation group where they continued radiotherapy. There was no difference in OS between the treatment arms, although there was an improvement in progression-free survival in favor of surgery.12 In a European study, patients with stage IIIA NSCLC were administered induction chemotherapy and responding patients were subsequently randomly assigned to surgery or radiotherapy. Again, no difference in OS was seen between the treatment arms.13

Given the variable data from clinical trials, with randomized trials not showing a survival advantage for patients having received surgery and smaller institutional studies suggesting good long-term survival with the addition of surgery to chemoradiation therapy, the algorithms used by institutions vary widely. In addition, the penetrance and efficacy of surgical resection remain inadequately understood. The National Cancer Database (NCDB), a joint program of the Commission on Cancer of the American College of Surgeons and the American Cancer Society, is a nationwide oncology outcomes database for more than 1500 commission-accredited cancer programs. Approximately, 70% of all newly diagnosed cases of cancer in the United States are captured at the institutional level and reported to the NCDB.14,15 We aimed to study the actual practice patterns of treatment for stage IIIA NSCLC in the United States and to understand the efficacy of surgical resection in conjunction with chemotherapy and radiation in this population using the NCDB.

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Using deidentified patient information from the NCDB participant user file, we abstracted patients with clinical stage IIIA NSCLC who received treatment between 1998 and 2010 with either a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy in any sequence (CR group) or a combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery in any sequence (CRS group). Patients who did not receive either one of these two treatment plans (CR or CRS) were excluded. Patients who received only palliative treatment (as coded in the database) were excluded. The study was exempted by the institutional review board.

For each patient, information on patient-related variables, tumor-related variables, treatment, and short- and long-term outcomes was obtained. Using information on race, income, and the population size of the area from which a patient presented, we formed dichotomized groups in which a patient was either Caucasian or not Caucasian, had an annual income less than or greater than $35,000, and presented from a rural location (regional population less than 250,000) or an urban location, respectively. The Charlson/Deyo score was used as a measure of comorbidity in the database. It was categorized as 0, 1, or greater than or equal to 2. The NCDB combined those with scores of 2 or greater into one group as very few patients had scores greater than 2. Treatment facilities were classified as community cancer programs, comprehensive community cancer programs, and academic/research centers. Last known vital status and the time between diagnosis and the follow-up date were used to determine survival. We initially contrasted patients receiving chemotherapy and radiation (CR group) to those who received surgery in addition to chemotherapy and radiation therapy in any sequence (CRS group) in an unmatched comparison. Patients in the CR group were then matched to those in the CRS group using a propensity score-based technique. The propensity score was the probability of receiving surgery during the study period, estimated using a logistic regression model including age, gender, race, income, rural versus urban status, year of diagnosis, Charlson/Deyo score, tumor size, and type of facility where treatment was administered. These variables were selected from univariate analyses comparing the CR and CRS groups. Patients for whom the propensity scores matched to the third decimal place were matched in 1:1 fashion. Automated matching was performed using the Fuzzy extension command in SPSS (SPSS 21.0 for Windows, SPSS Inc, Chicago, IL).16 Recognizing that neoadjuvant chemotherapy and radiation followed by surgery, henceforth referred to as trimodality therapy, are the de facto standard for CRS in the United States, we performed a secondary analysis (unmatched and matched) restricting CRS patients only to those who received neoadjuvant treatment (Fig. 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1
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All analyses were performed using SPSS 21.0. Descriptive statistics were expressed as mean ± standard deviation unless otherwise specified. Independent samples t tests and one-way analysis of variance were used to compare continuous variables. χ2 tests were used to compare categorical data. OS was estimated by the Kaplan-Meier method. p less than 0.05 were considered statistically significant.

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Between 1998 and 2010, 123,629 patients were diagnosed with clinical stage IIIA NSCLC at 1588 institutions. Of these, 61,339 (49.6%) were treated using combined modality therapy, with 51,979 (84.7%) receiving chemotherapy and radiation (CR) and 9360 (15.3%) undergoing surgical resection in addition to chemotherapy and radiation (CRS). Of the CRS group, 3811 of 6635 (57.4%) had pathologically confirmed N2 disease. For the entire cohort of patients receiving combined modality treatment, the mean age was 65.5 ± 10.1 years and 35,167 of 61,339 (57.3%) were male patients. Most patients were treated at either community comprehensive cancer programs (32,654 of 61,339, 53.2%) or academic cancer centers (17,038 of 61,339, 27.8%).

Patients in the CRS group were younger and were more likely to be female patients and Caucasians (Table 1). Surgical patients also had higher incomes and traveled farther for treatment than patients in the CR only group. Patients who underwent CRS had smaller tumors and lower Charlson comorbidity scores (Table 1). Between 1998 and 2004, 4078 of 28,464 (14.3%) patients received CRS for definitive treatment, whereas this proportion increased to 5282 of 32,875 (16.1%, p < 0.001) from 2005 to 2010. In addition, the difference in mean survival of patients diagnosed between 1998 and 2004 (30.57 ± 0.2 months) and those between 2005 and 2010 (29.33 ± 0.2 months), while statistically significant (p < 0.001), was deemed clinically insignificant. In the CR arm, 9710 of 38,166 (25.5%) patients received a cumulative radiation dose of less than 50 Gray (Gy) and 17,353 of 38,166 (45.4%) less than 60 Gy. In the surgical arm, 2692 of 3875 (69.5%) received preoperative chemotherapy. For patients receiving preoperative radiation in the surgical arm, mean radiation dose was 51.02 Gy. Mean postoperative hospital stay was 6.8 ± 8.4 days, and the 30-day surgical mortality was 200 of 8993 (2.2%). Median survival for unmatched patients receiving CR versus CRS was 15.7 versus 32.4 months, respectively (p < 0.001; Fig. 2A).

Table 1
Table 1
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Figure 2
Figure 2
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Propensity score matching between the CR and CRS groups yielded 5265 matched pairs. These groups were comparable in age, gender, race, location (rural versus urban), income, comorbidities, treatment facility, and year of diagnosis (Table 2). Tumors in the CR group were slightly larger than those in the CRS group (43.7 versus 42.5 mm, p = 0.01), although the 1.2 mm difference was not considered clinically meaningful. In the CR arm, 1017 of 4963 (20.5%) patients received a cumulative radiation dose of less than 50 Gy and 1977 of 4963 (39.8%) less than 60 Gy. In the surgical arm, 2112 of 3619 (58.3%) received preoperative chemotherapy. For the CRS group, the mean postoperative hospital stay was 6.9 ± 8.4 days and 234 of 5265 (4.4%) patients experienced unplanned readmissions after surgery. The 30-day surgical mortality was 114 of 5265 (2.2%). Median survival for matched patients receiving CR versus CRS was 18.4 versus 34.3 months, respectively (p < 0.001; Fig. 2B).

Table 2
Table 2
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In the entire cohort, 2293 patients underwent trimodality therapy with neoadjuvant chemotherapy and radiation followed by surgical resection. When compared with the 51,979 patients who received CR only, patients in the trimodality group tended to be younger, were more likely to be female patients, and had smaller tumors and lower Charlson comorbidity scores (Table 3). For the trimodality group, the 30-day surgical mortality was 84 of 2291 (3.7%); 8.5% of patients died after pneumonectomy. Median survival for unmatched patients receiving CR versus CRS with neoadjuvant chemotherapy and radiation was 15.7 versus 36.0 months, respectively (p < 0.001; Fig. 2C)

Table 3
Table 3
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Propensity score matching between the CR only and trimodality groups yielded 1729 matched pairs. These groups were comparable in age, gender, race, location, income, comorbidities, tumor size, distance traveled for treatment, and type of treatment facility (Table 4). In the CR arm, 266 of 1625 (16.4%) patients received a cumulative radiation dose of less than 50 Gy and 583 of 1625 (35.9%) less than 60 Gy. For the trimodality group, the mean postoperative hospital stay was 7.5 ± 9.9 days. The 30-day surgical mortality was 67 of 1727 (3.9%). Median survival for matched patients receiving CR versus CRS with neoadjuvant chemotherapy and radiation was 19.7 versus 35.9 months, respectively (p < 0.001; Fig. 2D). The 5-year survival for patients receiving trimodality treatment was 37.4% compared with 19.2% for CR.

Table 4
Table 4
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Given the large proportion of patients receiving radiation therapy (RT) doses less than 60 Gy, the effect of RT dose on OS was explored. For CR patients in the unmatched cohort of 51,979 patients, OS for those with RT dose greater than or equal to 60 Gy was 19.2 months compared with 15.7 months for the overall cohort. In the matched cohort of 5265 patients, OS in the CR group improved from 18.4 to 20.5 months with greater than or equal to 60 Gy RT. In the CR cohort matched to trimodality therapy patients, OS improved from 19.7 to 22.3 months with greater than or equal to 60 Gy RT. However, in all comparisons of CRS versus CR, OS was significantly greater for CRS irrespective of RT dose (data not shown).

Of all clinical stage IIIA patients in this study, about 90% had N2 disease whereas the rest included other subgroups of stage IIIA disease, such as T3N1. We performed a subgroup analysis of this subset (N2) and found no difference in findings from the analyses of the larger cohort of all stage IIIA patients (data not shown). Similarly, matched comparisons in the N2 subgroup analyses between the CR and CRS arms did not differ from findings in the larger group.

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Our study demonstrates that there is significant heterogeneity in treatment of clinical stage IIIA NSCLC in the United States, and selected patients who undergo surgical resection, in addition to chemotherapy and radiation, seem to have better long-term OS. Within the framework of published guidelines by bodies such as the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, decision making in stage III NSCLC is often dependent on institutional preferences, assessment of tumor burden, and the patient’s physiologic reserve. A population-based Canadian study noted that while 12% of patients with stage III NSCLC underwent primary surgery, radiation therapy was part of the initial treatment for 78% and chemotherapy in 31% of patients only.17 The usage of chemotherapy was especially lower than predicted. Similarly, we found that 15.3% of patients targeted for definitive treatment underwent a surgical resection and preoperative systemic therapy was used in only 69.5% of patients. Other large population-based studies have found a similar lack of uniformity in treatment of stage III NSCLC, with up to 28% of patients receiving palliative care and combination therapy being used in 26 to 47% of patients only.17–19 Poor performance status of patients has not been shown to solely account for these wide variations in treatment.17

We noted that urban dwellers, Caucasian patients, and those with higher income levels were more likely to receive combination CRS. The relationship between socioeconomic status, race, and treatment for lung cancer has been previously studied, and a meta-analysis concluded that patients living in more socioeconomically deprived circumstances are less likely to receive any type of treatment, especially surgery, and chemotherapy.20 Specifically, the association between likelihood of surgery and socioeconomic status has been investigated in patients with stage I and II NSCLC where surgical resection is standard of care. One such study describing a cohort of patients treated between 1991 and 1999 noted that black race and lower socioeconomic status were associated with a lower likelihood of surgery.21 Our findings from a more contemporary period (1998–2010) are quite similar in patients treated for stage III NSCLC. We also noted that treatment at academic cancer centers was associated with trimodality therapy including surgery. Other authors have described a closer relationship between higher volume centers and surgery for NSCLC.21 The NCDB does not provide details of hospital volume directly; however, it is likely that academic cancer centers have higher case volumes compared with other institutions.

The role of surgery in stage IIIA NSCLC is controversial. Although the new American College of Chest Physicians guidelines suggest that surgery may play a role in specific stage IIIA patients, publications based on comprehensive reviews do not make any firm statements about the efficacy of surgery.22 The American College of Chest Physician suggests that in patients with discrete N2 involvement by NSCLC identified preoperatively (IIIA), either definitive chemoradiation therapy or induction therapy followed by surgery be considered over either surgery or radiation alone. Several single-center cohort studies highlight good outcomes when surgery is performed in conjunction with chemoradiation therapy. These series demonstrate median OS ranging from 33 to 61 months with 5-year survival of up to 43%.8–11,23–25 Four randomized trials have attempted to study the efficacy of surgery for stage IIIA disease.12,13,26,27 The Medical Research Council Lung Cancer Working Party trial attempted to enroll 350 patients with stage IIIA disease not amenable to primary surgery and randomize them to definitive radiotherapy or chemotherapy followed by resection. The trial closed because of poor accrual, with only 48 patients randomized in 3 years.26 RTOG 89-01 treated patients with confirmed N2 disease with induction chemotherapy and randomized them to either surgery or RT, followed by consolidation chemotherapy for both arms. The trial accrued 75 patients toward a goal of 224 patients. No significant difference was noted in the median survival time between the surgical and radiation arms. (19.4 versus 17.4 months).27

Among the studies that met enrollment goals, the INT-0139 trial treated patients with positive N2 nodes with concurrent induction chemotherapy plus radiotherapy.12 If no progression occurred, patients in the surgical group underwent resection and those in the chemoradiation group continued radiotherapy. A total of 396 patients were examined with no difference noted in the OS between the two groups (23.6 versus 22.2 months). In an exploratory analysis, OS was improved for patients who underwent lobectomy (33.6 months), but not pneumonectomy (18.9 months), versus chemotherapy and radiotherapy. This study is criticized for an unusually high mortality rate of 26% after pneumonectomy that may have diluted any OS advantage in the surgical arm. The 30-day mortality rate after pneumonectomy following induction chemoradiation in our study was 8.5%, which is line with the 3 to 8% operative mortality in several previous reports.28–30 Finally, in the European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer-Lung Cancer Group study, patients with stage IIIA-N2 NSCLC were given three cycles of induction chemotherapy. Responding patients were randomized to surgical resection or radiotherapy. Median survival for patients assigned to surgery versus radiotherapy was 16.4 versus 17.5 months, respectively.13 Surprisingly, nearly 55% of surgical patients in this trial underwent a pneumonectomy and the median survival after pneumonectomy was 13.4 months compared with 25.4 months after a lobectomy. Less than 15% of patients in the trimodality group in our study underwent a pneumonectomy.

An important finding in our study is the wide variability in the application of individual treatment modalities. For definitive therapy with CR, doses of 60 Gy or higher are recommended based on prospective data demonstrating inferior survival at lower doses.31 The recommended dose for preoperative radiotherapy is 45 Gy or higher, although no such dose response has been suggested in this setting.22 In the overall unmatched cohort, the mean radiation dose for CR was 59.14 Gy with 25% of patients receiving a cumulative dose of less than 50 Gy and 45% of patients receiving less than 60 Gy. The implication for such a large proportion of patients with potentially curable stage IIIA NSCLC being treated with suboptimal doses is significant and will be explored further in a separate analysis. In the CRS cohort, the mean radiation dose was 52.95 Gy, and 35% of patients received a cumulative dose of less than 45 Gy. Similarly, nearly 10% of patients in the CR cohort and 5% in the CRS cohort were treated with single agent chemotherapy although dual agent chemotherapy is the standard of care. More than 15% of surgical patients underwent sublobar lung resection, despite lobectomy (or pneumonectomy) being widely considered to be the appropriate operation for stage IIIA disease. Even rigorously conducted clinical trials demonstrate a degree of nonadherence to protocol. Investigators in the INT-0139 trial administered radiotherapy per protocol or with acceptable variation to 96% patients in the trimodality group and 79% in the chemoradiation only group.12 In the same study, 95% of patients in the trimodality arm and 92% in the chemoradiation arm received appropriate chemotherapy per protocol, and only 2% of patients underwent a sublobar resection. The higher levels of deviation from recommended guidelines in this cohort are likely because of a variety of reasons, not all of which imply a lack of adherence. For an individual patient, issues of comorbidity and patient preferences may preclude optimal treatment. However, it seems equally likely given the large numbers of patients for which less than optimal treatment was delivered that lack of a multidisciplinary team approach, low patient volume, and lack of awareness of recommended treatment options may contribute as well.

Our study has some strengths and limitations when compared with previous publications. It includes information from a national database that reflects actual practice patterns for all environments where patients with lung cancer receive care. Thus, the findings are more likely to be generalizable to the population when compared with trials conducted with strict entry criteria at major cancer centers. The relatively large sample size available for primary and secondary analyses is another advantage compared with prospective studies where subset analysis may be underpowered. However, our retrospective analysis may miss significant selection bias in treatment allocation, such that early disease may have been preferentially allocated to the CRS treatment group. We attempted to overcome this by propensity score matching patients based on available variables associated with treatment allocation to surgery but the process potentially misses important variables not recorded in the database. We attempted to control for tumor burden by matching on size of the lung mass, but detailed information about the size and number of lymph nodes involved is unavailable. The accuracy of individual observations in large databases is arguably lower than that in closely monitored clinical trials; however, the general trends of perioperative outcomes and long-term survival we observed is similar to prior cohort studies. In addition, although all the included patients were clinical stage IIIA, most of the pathologic staging information was missing. Pathologic stage data were only available for 7% of the patients in the CR arm and approximately 36% of patients in the CRS arm had missing pathologic staging data. This missing pathologic staging information adds potential bias as this may have led to understaged patients in the CR group. The magnitude of mediastinal disease is important in consideration of surgery; however, a comparison of the degree of nodal involvement was not possible because nodal information was available for less than 17% of patients in the CR group and missing for a significant proportion of the surgical group.

We conclude that there is significant variability in treatment of patients with clinical stage IIIA NSCLC in the United States and patients selected for surgery in addition to chemotherapy and radiation seem to show better long-term survival relative to chemotherapy and radiation alone. We recommend that patients with stage IIIA NSCLC should be discussed at a multidisciplinary meeting that includes a medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, and thoracic surgeon.

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Non–small-cell lung cancer; Surgery; Outcomes

Copyright © 2014 by the European Lung Cancer Conference and the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer.


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