How is chemotherapy used to treat lung cancer?

Dr. Raja M. Flores, MD
Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Chemotherapy uses chemical agents to kill cancer cells.  Given by a medical oncologist, most chemotherapy used for lung cancer is injected into a patient's vein. This method is referred to as intravenous, or IV injection. These agents are effective at killing cancer cells, but can also cause side effects that can include nausea, vomiting, and fatigue.

Chemotherapy may also damage normal cells in the body including skin, blood, and nerve cells. Low blood counts, increased risk of infection, hair loss, mouth sores, and/or numbness or tingling in the hands and feet can are common side effects. Various treatments prescribed by your oncologist can minimize many of these side effects. For instance, blood growth factor injections are used to keep white and red blood cell counts from becoming too low.

The newer chemotherapy methods cause fewer side effects and are as effective as older treatments. Chemotherapy has been shown to improve both the length and quality of life in people with lung cancer of all stages.

Chemotherapy is medicine that can be used to destroy cancer, slow its growth, keep it from spreading or ease symptoms. The drugs are taken through a vein (intravenously) or, sometimes, by mouth (orally). The medicine flows through the bloodstream killing fast-growing cells, including cancer cells. Even if chemotherapy doesn't get rid of all the cancer, studies find it can help people with lung cancer live longer and more comfortable lives.

Chemotherapy is usually given in an outpatient setting and in regular cycles at regular doses for several months. In most cases, cycles last three to four weeks. The first treatment usually consists of four to six cycles.

Chemotherapy drugs reach all the parts of your body, so they also affect normal cells. Side effects can vary greatly. The most common include nausea and vomiting, hair loss, fatigue, susceptibility to infection and constipation. Your doctor can help you manage these side effects, but you must be sure to communicate how you feel.

There are two types of lung cancer, small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer, which spreads less rapidly, is often treated with chemotherapy and radiation, while non-small cell lung cancer often requires surgery followed by chemotherapy.

For patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), the use of chemotherapy in advanced disease has become routine with the advent of more effective drugs such as Gemzar, Navelbine, Taxol, and Taxotere. The challenge is to find the best combination and sequence of these drugs, and this emerging science is actively under study.

Patients with NSCLC that has spread to lymph nodes in the chest, but who are still recommended for surgery, will benefit from chemotherapy given prior to their surgery. The role of chemotherapy, using the many new drugs now available, following complete surgery in less advanced disease is currently under analysis. Your medical oncologist will advise you on all the latest findings that may affect your treatment.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.