Chemotherapy for lung cancer
Chemotherapy is the treatment of cancer with drugs that kill cancer cells or slow their growth. It can be used at different times:
- before surgery to try to shrink the cancer and make the operation easier (neoadjuvant chemotherapy)
- before or during radiation therapy to make radiation therapy more effective (chemoradiation)
- after surgery to reduce the risk of the cancer returning (adjuvant chemotherapy)
- when cancer is advanced – to reduce symptoms and improve quality of life (palliative chemotherapy).
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Chemotherapy is usually delivered into a vein (intravenously). Each chemotherapy treatment is called a cycle and is followed by a rest period to give your body time to recover. The number of cycles will depend on the type of lung cancer you have and the side effects you experience. You will probably have chemotherapy as an outpatient, which means you won’t have to stay overnight. Ask your doctor about the treatment plan recommended for you.
Some types of chemotherapy come in tablet form and can be taken by mouth (orally). These are sometimes used on an ongoing basis.
Chemotherapy works on cells that are dividing rapidly. Cancer cells divide rapidly, as do some healthy cells such as the cells in your blood, mouth, digestive system and hair follicles. Side effects occur when chemotherapy damages these normal cells. Unlike cancer cells, normal cells can recover, so most side effects are temporary. Side effects vary depending on the drugs used and from person to person.
A low red blood cell count is called anaemia. This can make you feel tired or breathless. Your treatment team will monitor your red blood cell levels and suggest treatment if necessary.
Risk of infections
Chemotherapy drugs lower the number of white blood cells that fight infections, so you will be more likely to develop colds or flu. If you feel unwell or have a temperature above 38°C, call your doctor immediately or go to the hospital emergency department.
Some chemotherapy drugs cause mouth sores, ulcers and thickened saliva, which make it difficult to swallow. Your treatment team will explain how to take care of your mouth.
You may lose hair from your head and chest, depending on the chemotherapy drugs you receive. The hair will grow back after treatment is completed, but the colour and texture may change.
Nausea or vomiting
You will usually be prescribed anti-nausea medicine with your chemotherapy drugs, but some people still feel sick (nauseous) or vomit. Let your treatment team know if you feel nauseous, as they may be able to offer another anti-nausea medicine.
Video: What is chemotherapy?
Dr Henry Marshall, Thoracic Physician, The University of Queensland Thoracic Research Centre, The Prince Charles Hospital, QLD; Dr Naveed Alam, Thoracic Surgeon, St Vincent’s Melbourne and Epworth Richmond Hospitals, VIC; A/Prof Martin Borg, Radiation Oncologist, GenesisCare, SA; Dr Lisa Briggs, Consumer; Kirsten Mooney, Thoracic Cancer Nurse Coordinator, WA Cancer & Palliative Care Network, WA; Claire Mulvihill, Lung Cancer Support Nurse, Lung Foundation Australia; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; A/Prof Nick Pavlakis, President, Australasian Lung Cancer Trials Group, President Elect, Clinical Oncology Society of Australia, and Senior Staff Specialist, Department of Medical Oncology, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
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