About chemotherapy for lung cancer
This page tells you about chemotherapy for lung cancer. There is information about
About chemotherapy for lung cancer
Chemotherapy means using anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells.
Chemotherapy for small cell lung cancer
Chemotherapy is the main treatment for most people with small cell lung cancer. This type of cancer responds very well to chemotherapy. And because chemotherapy circulates in the bloodstream around the body, it can treat any cells that have already broken away from the lung tumour. Some people have chemotherapy combined with radiotherapy.
Chemotherapy for non small cell lung cancer
Doctors may use chemotherapy after surgery for early stage non small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). It may also be used before or after radiotherapy. These treatments aim to get rid of the cancer.
If you have advanced non small cell lung cancer, your doctor may suggest combined treatment with radiotherapy and chemotherapy. The treatment won't cure the cancer but can keep it under control for some time.
Chemotherapy to control symptoms
Chemotherapy can help to control the symptoms of lung cancer that has spread into surrounding tissues or to other parts of the body.
How you have chemotherapy
You have most chemotherapy drugs by injection into a vein or through a drip. But some are tablets or capsules that you swallow. Usually, you have treatment with a combination of 2 or 3 different drugs. Most often, you have chemotherapy every 3 or 4 weeks. You usually have 4 to 6 treatments. So a full course can take 3 to 4 months.
You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating lung cancer section.
Chemotherapy means using anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. These work by disrupting the growth of cancer cells.
Chemotherapy is the main treatment for small cell lung cancer. Doctors use it because
- This type of cancer responds very well to chemotherapy
- Small cell lung cancer tends to have spread beyond the lung when it is diagnosed
Chemotherapy drugs circulate in the bloodstream around the body. So they can treat cells that have broken away from the lung tumour and spread to other parts of the body even if they are too small to see on scans. This microscopic spread often happens even in the early stages of small cell lung cancer.
Often chemotherapy is used on its own. Or you may have chemotherapy before or after radiotherapy (or at the same time). If you are to have surgery for very early small cell lung cancer, your doctor may suggest that you have chemotherapy before or after surgery.
Small cell lung cancer usually responds well to these treatments, but researchers are continuing to test other combinations to see if they can either improve the results, lessen the side effects, or both.
For cancer that has come back after treatment, doctors may use one of the treatments above or one of the following chemotherapy combinations
- CAV (cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin and vincristine)
- CAVE (CAV plus etoposide)
- ACE (doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide and etoposide)
People who have medical conditions that mean they cannot have CAV or ACE chemotherapy may have topotecan chemotherapy capsules.
There is information about current chemotherapy research in the lung cancer research page in this section. And you can find out about clinical trials on our clinical trials database. Choose 'lung' from the dropdown menu of cancer types.
Doctors use chemotherapy to treat non small cell lung cancer in the following situations
- After surgery for early stage cancer
- Before, after, or alongside radiotherapy treatment
- For locally advanced lung cancer or cancer that has spread
Chemotherapy after surgery for early stage NSCLC can help to lower the risk of the cancer coming back. It is important that your doctor talks to you beforehand about the benefits and possible risks of chemotherapy because the drugs can cause side effects. Chemotherapy tends to work best in patients who are fit. If you are fit enough to have chemotherapy you usually start it within about 8 weeks of having surgery.
Giving chemotherapy before or after radiotherapy can sometimes help to get rid of early stage NSCLC in people who can't have surgery. The chemotherapy drugs will usually be the same as mentioned above.
These treatments can also help some people with advanced non small cell lung cancer to live longer even if they are not likely to be cured of their cancer. If you are fairly fit, your doctor may suggest combined treatment with radiotherapy and chemotherapy (chemoradiation) as the best way of trying to control it.
Locally advanced lung cancer means that the cancer has spread beyond the lung into surrounding tissues or nearby lymph nodes. Metastatic lung cancer means the cancer has spread into other organs or lymph nodes far away in the body. Chemotherapy can help to shrink or slow the growth of locally advanced or metastatic NSCLC. It can also help to control symptoms for some people.
Your doctor will usually offer you treatment with either cisplatin or carboplatin combined with one of the following drugs
- Gemcitabine (Gemzar)
- Paclitaxel (Taxol)
- Vinorelbine (Navelbine)
- Docetaxel (Taxotere)
- Pemetrexed (Alimta)
If you have cisplatin and pemetrexed treatment and your cancer shrinks, your specialist may recommend that you continue with pemetrexed treatment on its own. Doctors call this pemetrexed maintenance treatment. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is assessing this treatment at the moment.
If your cancer continues to grow during chemotherapy, your doctor may recommend docetaxel (Taxotere) chemotherapy if you have not had that before. Or your doctor may recommend changing to another chemotherapy treatment.
If your cancer cells have particular proteins that make them respond to biological therapy drugs such as erlotinib (Tarceva), gefitinib (Iressa) or crizotinib (Xalkori) your doctor may suggest that you have one of these. We have a page about biological therapy treatments for lung cancer.
Your doctor will talk to you in detail about the possible risks and benefits of further treatment. These treatments will not help everybody. It will depend on how fit you are, and how able you are to cope with any side effects.
You have most chemotherapy drugs by injection into a vein or through a drip. But some are tablets or capsules that you swallow.
How you have the drugs, and how often, depends on which drugs you are having. Usually, you have treatment with a combination of drugs. You will need to ask your chemotherapy nurse or doctor to explain the details of your treatment to you.
Most often, you have the chemotherapy treatment every 3 to 4 weeks. Then you have a rest period to allow your body to get over any side effects. The number of treatments you have depends on
- Which drugs you are having
- The type of lung cancer you have
- How well the treatment is working
- How your body is coping with the side effects
You can have most chemotherapy drugs as an outpatient. So you go into the hospital or clinic for the day to have treatment and go home afterwards. Your chemotherapy nurse will give you medicines to take home in case you need them to control side effects.
Some chemotherapy drugs have to be given in hospital. Usually this is because you have to have them through a drip over a number of hours. So depending on your treatment, you may have to stay overnight, or for a few days.
Most chemotherapy is given for 4 to 6 treatments. So a full course can take 3 to 6 months.
If you are having treatment to control symptoms, the aim of the treatment is to help you feel better. Your doctor will keep an eye on your progress by monitoring your symptoms and possibly by checking the size of your cancer on scans and X-rays.
If the treatment is working well you will continue with the treatment. If the treatment is not working well your doctor will suggest changing to a different treatment or stopping it.
It may be very upsetting if your doctor tells you that they are stopping your treatment after only a few treatments when you thought you would have more. But you can talk to your doctor or specialist nurse about the other treatment options open to you.
We don't yet know much scientifically about how some nutritional or herbal supplements may interact with chemotherapy. Some could be harmful. It is very important to let your doctors know if you take any supplements. Or if you are prescribed therapies by alternative or complementary therapy practitioners.
Talk to your specialist about any other tablets or medicines you take while you are having cancer treatment. There is information about the safety of herbal, vitamin and diet supplements in the complementary therapies section.
Some studies seem to suggest that fish oil preparations may reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs. If you are taking or thinking of taking these supplements talk to your doctor to find out whether they could affect your treatment.
You can look at the main chemotherapy section. It has detailed information about
- What chemotherapy involves
- How chemotherapy is planned
- General chemotherapy side effects
- Living with chemotherapy
You can ask your doctor or chemotherapy nurse to write down the names of the drugs you will have so you can look them up in our specific drug side effects section. There are pages there for all the most commonly used chemotherapy drugs. Each drug page has information about common, occasional, and rare side effects for that drug.
You can phone the Cancer research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Our lung cancer organisations page gives details of people who can give information about lung cancer chemotherapy. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. Our lung cancer reading list has information about books and leaflets on lung cancer treatments.
If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use CancerChat, our online forum. Or you can go through My Wavelength. This is a free service that aims to put people with similar medical conditions in touch with each other.
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