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There are many different ways to treat lung cancer. One of these treatment methods is chemotherapy. Chemotherapy can be used alone or with other forms of treatment.

The specific kind of chemotherapy used can vary depending on a variety of factors. It’s used for both non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC).

Knowing more about chemotherapy and how it’s used to treat lung cancer can help you make informed decisions with your treatment team. Keep reading to learn more.

A variety of treatments may be used for lung cancer, depending on the type of cancer and how far it has spread. Chemotherapy may be given because it’s a systemic treatment. This means that the medication can go through the entire body, reaching and killing cancer cells that may have spread.

For those diagnosed with SCLC, chemotherapy is a primary treatment. This is because the cancer has typically spread by the time it’s diagnosed, so chemotherapy is the most effective treatment.

For those diagnosed with NSCLC, chemotherapy can be used along with surgery, targeted therapy, and radiation therapy.

There are many different chemotherapy drugs available for lung cancer. The drugs given depend on:

  • the type of lung cancer you have
  • the stage of your cancer
  • whether you’ve already tried other chemotherapy drugs

Drugs used for small cell lung cancer (SCLC)

SCLC is usually treated by a combination of two chemotherapy drugs. The most frequent combinations include:

  • cisplatin and etoposide
  • carboplatin and etoposide
  • cisplatin and irinotecan
  • carboplatin and irinotecan

If the SCLC has spread, or cisplatin and carboplatin have been tried but the cancer is resistant, topotecan and lurbinectedin are other options.

Drugs used for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)

The chemotherapy drugs that can be used to treat NSCLC include:

  • cisplatin
  • carboplatin
  • paclitaxel
  • albumin-bound paclitaxel
  • docetaxel
  • vinorelbine
  • etoposide
  • pemetrexed
  • gemcitabine

If the NSCLC is early stage, a combination of two chemotherapy drugs is usually used. This combination typically includes either carboplatin or cisplatin, and another drug. Sometimes combinations don’t include these drugs.

Advanced NSCLC may be treated with one chemotherapy drug. This can also be done if you don’t tolerate combination chemotherapy well or if there are other health risks. Sometimes an immunotherapy drug or targeted medication may be given with chemotherapy in advanced NSCLC.

Chemotherapy drugs for lung cancer are usually given intravenously, or through a vein. They can be given as an injection, which takes just a couple of minutes, or as an infusion, which takes several hours.

Chemotherapy can be given in a doctor’s office, chemotherapy clinic, hospital, or treatment center. Some people have a port or central venous access (CVA) lines to allow providers to put chemotherapy right into the bloodstream without an individual needle stick.

Chemotherapy is given in cycles. This means that each treatment period is followed by a period of no treatment. This allows your body to rest and recover from the effects of the drugs.

The exact schedule depends on the specific drugs you are on. Initial treatment is usually 4 to 6 cycles, but usually cycles are 3 to 4 weeks long.

After the treatment cycles are over, treatment may be continued with one drug or an immunotherapy drug. This is called maintenance therapy.

Chemotherapy targets quick-dividing cells. Although cancer cells divide quickly, so do other cells in the body.

Other quick-dividing cells in the body that may be affected by chemotherapy include:

  • blood cells
  • hair cells
  • skin cells
  • the cells of the lining of the intestinal tract

Because these cells are affected by chemotherapy, you may experience side effects. These can include:

  • easy bruising or excessive bleeding
  • diarrhea
  • dry mouth
  • mouth sores
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • hair loss
  • appetite loss, which can lead to weight loss
  • nausea or vomiting
  • infections
  • anemia
  • nerve damage, resulting in pain
  • constipation
  • memory problems
  • skin and nail changes
  • insomnia
  • sexual or fertility changes

Talk with your doctor about any side effects you may be experiencing. They can provide tips and guidance on how to manage these side effects. If the side effects are severe, you may need to stop that drug.

There are also long-term effects with some chemotherapy drugs. These can occur months or even years after you end treatment. These long-term effects can vary, depending on the specific drug.

Long-term effects may include damage to the:

  • heart
  • kidneys
  • lungs
  • nerves
  • reproductive organs

Ask your doctor about potential long-term side effects that you should be aware of.

The survival rate for lung cancer can vary.

  • For all NSLC stages combined, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 25 percent.
  • For all SCLC stages combined, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 7 percent.

Outlooks can vary widely, depending on the stage of cancer you have and how far it has spread. Statistics give an overall picture but aren’t definitive. Talk with your doctor about your personal prognosis, given your diagnosis and other health factors.

Chemotherapy can help slow down or stop cancer growth, help reduce side effects from lung cancer, and extend your life. That said, each person is different, and people respond to different chemotherapy drugs in different ways. What works for one person may not work for another.

Talk with your doctor about the prognosis for your specific type and stage of lung cancer, as well as the effects of the chemotherapy you are on.

Chemotherapy is an important form of treatment for lung cancer, both NSCLC and SCLC. Although lung cancer is a very serious form of cancer, chemotherapy may help slow the spread and extend your life.

Talk with your doctor about whether chemotherapy is an appropriate option and what to expect if you decide to start treatment.