Chemotherapy is the treatment of cancer with anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs. The aim is to destroy cancer cells while causing the least possible damage to normal, healthy cells.
Chemotherapy is usually delivered through an intravenous drip. Each chemotherapy treatment is called a cycle and is followed by a rest period to give your body time to recover.
The number of treatments you have will depend on the type of lung cancer you have and how well your body is coping with the side effects. You will probably have chemotherapy as an outpatient, which means you won’t have to stay in hospital overnight.
Ask your doctor about the treatment plan recommended for you.
Some types of chemotherapy can be taken by mouth (orally) in tablet form, and are generally used on a continuous basis.
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When is chemotherapy used?
Chemotherapy can be used at different times, including:
- before surgery (neo-adjuvant chemotherapy), to try to shrink the cancer and make the operation easier.
- before radiotherapy or during radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy or chemoradiation), to make radiotherapy more effective.
- after surgery (adjuvant chemotherapy), to reduce the risk of the cancer returning.
- as palliative treatment, to reduce symptoms, improve your quality of life or extend your life.
Side effects of chemotherapy
Chemotherapy can affect the healthy cells in the body and cause side effects. Everyone reacts differently to chemotherapy, and effects will vary according to the drugs you are given. Often side effects are temporary. Talk to your medical team about what to expect.
Anaemia – 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. This can make you more likely to develop colds or the flu. If you feel unwell or have a temperature higher than 38°C, call your doctor immediately or go to the hospital emergency department.
Mouth ulcers – Some chemotherapy drugs cause mouth sores, ulcers or thickened saliva, which make it difficult to swallow.
Download the Mouth Health and Cancer Treatment fact sheet.
Hair loss – 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.
Download the Hair Loss fact sheet.
Nausea or vomiting – It is common to feel sick (nauseated) or vomit. Let your treatment team know if you feel nauseated.