Chemotherapy for Lung Cancer

The use of drugs to treat lung cancer is called chemotherapy or chemo for short. Chemotherapy medications attack cancer cells in the lung, checking the destruction of healthy tissue and the disease’s expansion to other parts of the body. If the cancer has already metastasized, chemotherapy can be used to limit any further spread, reduce pain and other symptoms, and improve a patient’s quality of life. Physicians use chemotherapy in a variety of medical circumstances, often in combination with other forms of treatment, including surgery, radiation, and targeted therapies. 

Radiation can play a critical role in the battle with lung cancer. 

How Does Chemotherapy for Lung Cancer Work?

Chemotherapy utilizes cytotoxic, or cell-killing, medications to attack cancer cells. The medications are designed to target rapidly dividing cells for destruction, which makes them an effective weapon against fast-reproducing cancer cells. Unfortunately, your body also supports non-cancerous cells that reproduce rapidly – cells for hair growth, stomach function, and blood production. Cytotoxic chemicals attack these, too, which is why hair loss, nausea, and anemia are among the side effects of chemotherapy for lung and other cancers.  

Chemotherapy medications are typically given intravenously, either by injection or infusion (that is, by drip method via specially designed IV devices). Some chemo drugs are available in pill form. Delivery can take place in a doctor’s office, hospital, outpatient facility, or cancer-treatment clinic. Most chemotherapy is provided in cycles, with periods of treatment followed by periods without. This allows healthy cells to recover that are sometimes affected by chemo medications. Depending on the nature and circumstances of the therapy, treatment periods can run from a couple of weeks to as many as six months in duration.

How Is Chemotherapy Used with Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer?

Chemotherapy can be an effective means of treating non-small cell lung cancers. There are four primary circumstances in which it is used:

  • Before surgery: Chemotherapy is sometimes used to shrink tumors prior to their surgical removal. The medical term for this type of chemotherapy is neoadjuvant. Neoadjuvant chemotherapy has several advantages as a form of care. Most importantly, it increases the likelihood of eliminating the entire cancer from the body. It also generates valuable information for the medical team on how best to treat a specific instance of the disease. 
  • After surgery: Chemotherapy is also deployed following surgery, as a means of killing any remaining cancer cells that may have been missed during the operation. This is known as adjuvant chemotherapy. 
  • As a standalone measure: In those situations where the patient isn’t strong enough for surgery, chemotherapy is sometimes the best alternative means for addressing the cancer. 
  • In advanced cases: A fourth application of chemotherapy is targeting the disease once it has spread from the lungs to other parts of the body. Used in this manner, chemotherapy has proven successful in limiting symptoms and increasing rates of survival, though sometimes at the cost of unpleasant side effects. 

Treatment frequently consists of two drugs. Sometimes a cytotoxic medication is given in combination with a targeted-therapy drug, which attacks lung cancer cells using a different chemical strategy. 

How Is Chemotherapy Used with Small Cell Lung Cancer?

Chemotherapy is also employed in the treatment of small cell lung cancers, though less frequently. It is used in combination with radiation to target early-stage small-cell tumors or as a standalone therapy when the cancer has spread from the lungs to other parts of the body. 

How Do I Prepare for Lung Cancer Chemotherapy?

If your physician determines that chemotherapy is appropriate for you, there are several steps you can take to help prepare yourself for treatment:

  • Maintain your health: You’re already fighting cancer; don’t make matters worse by neglecting your overall health. Remain active, eat well, get rest, and limit stress. 
  • Get ready for the side effects: Know what to expect and how to respond if side effects occur (for example, hair loss).
  • Arrange for help from family members, friends, and colleagues: There will be times when you’re unable to maintain a normal level of activity. Plan ahead by having loved ones and others cover for you. 
  • Provide detailed information to your physician about current medications and other supplements: This is necessary to avoid potential interactions that might reduce the effectiveness of your lung cancer drugs. 
  • Develop a treatment routine: You may be limited in what you are allowed to eat and drink on the days you’re receiving chemo. You’ll want to have friends or family members at hand, to assist in practical matters like driving and to offer comfort and support. 

You’ll see your physician regularly after completing chemotherapy for lung cancer. He or she will evaluate the effectiveness of your treatment. This process will continue indefinitely. If the treatment is unsuccessful or your cancer returns, your physician will devise a new plan for addressing it.

What Are the Side Effects of Lung Cancer Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is a systemic form of treatment, meaning that the drugs that attack cancer cells are also present in other parts of the body, and can damage healthy cells as well as diseased ones. This leads to unintended side effects. Most of these will diminish over time, once you’ve completed your treatments, though there may be exceptions. The following are typical side effects for lung cancer chemotherapy:

  • Loss of hair
  • Nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite
  • Constipation and diarrhea
  • Fatigue and feelings of weakness
  • Numbness and tingling or burning sensations in your arms and legs
  • Sores, especially in the mouth
  • Short-term memory and concentration problems (“chemo fog”)
  • Increased infection risk

There is also a psychological dimension to undergoing chemotherapy. Feelings of anxiety and despair during treatment can be replaced by a sense of loneliness and isolation afterwards, coupled with a fear of cancer returning. Be sure to rely on supportive family members and friends, or become involved in a cancer-survivors’ group following treatment. 

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