Lung Cancer Chemotherapy

Depending on the type and stage of your lung cancer, your medical oncologist may recommend chemotherapy (anti-cancer drugs). Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) patients receive chemotherapy in the Infusion Suite on the fifth floor of the main SCCA building. You may want to bring a friend or family member to sit with you during your treatment, which sometimes takes several hours.

What Chemotherapy Does

Chemotherapy is systemic; it enters your bloodstream and goes throughout your body. The drugs affect cancer cells, but they can also affect certain normal cells, which may lead to side effects.

Chemotherapy can be used to:

  • Keep cancer from spreading.
  • Slow cancer’s growth.
  • Kill cancer cells that may have spread to other parts of your body.
  • Relieve symptoms caused by cancer.

Sometimes chemotherapy is the only treatment needed for lung cancer; however, it can be used along with other treatments, including surgery, radiation therapy, and targeted therapy.

Getting Chemotherapy for Lung Cancer

How often you get treatment and how long your treatment lasts depend on the type and stage of your cancer, the drug or combination of drugs selected, and your body’s response to treatment. You may get treatments daily, weekly, or monthly. Chemotherapy is generally given every three to four weeks in cycles.

Some chemotherapy drugs are taken by mouth in pill form, while others are given through an intravenous (IV) line into a vein in the hand or arm or through a port into a vein in the chest.

The most commonly used chemotherapy drugs for lung cancer are:

  • Carboplatin (Paraplatin)
  • Cisplatin (Platinol)
  • Gemcitabine (Gemzar)
  • Paclitaxel (Taxol)
  • Docetaxel (Taxotere)
  • Irinotecan (Camptosar, CPT-11)
  • Etoposide (VP-16, VePesid)
  • Pemetrexed (Alimta)
  • Erlotinib (Tarceva)

If your cancer stops responding to treatment or if it recurs, your doctor may recommend additional treatments. These subsequent treatments, known as second-line or third-line treatments, may use different combinations of drugs or targeted therapies to relieve symptoms or to slow the growth or spread of the cancer.

Timing of Chemotherapy

While chemotherapy is sometimes given alone or before other treatments, your doctor may recommend having chemotherapy after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells. There is emerging evidence that this may improve your chances of a cure.

Doctors may also recommend continuing chemotherapy treatment in patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer who have had a good response. This approach, known as maintenance therapy, is intended to keep the lung cancer from growing for as long as possible and hopefully help patients live longer.

Side Effects

Side effects of chemotherapy vary greatly from person to person and depend on the type and dose of the drugs given, the way they are given, and the length of time they are given. Your treatment team can tell you about the side effects that are most common with your drugs.

Let your team know about any side effects you experience. They may be able to give you medicines to prevent or relieve side effects, suggest other ways to manage side effects, or change your chemotherapy dosage or treatment schedule to prevent side effects from getting worse. For general advice, see the symptom management section.

The time it takes to get over some side effects and regain energy depends on many factors, including your overall health and the drugs you were given. Many side effects are short term and go away after treatment is finished because your healthy cells recover over time.