Learn: What is chemotherapy? How is it used for lung cancer? Is it still needed for lung cancer treatment?

3 Things to Know about Chemotherapy

Understand the basics of chemotherapy for lung cancer in this intro video from Hope with Answers. In this video, patient advocate Montessa Lee discusses chemotherapy for lung cancer with lung cancer researcher, Dr. Vincent Lam.


The use of drugs to treat lung cancer is called chemotherapy or chemo for short. Chemotherapy for lung cancer treatment uses a drug (or a combination of drugs) that employs cell-killing medications (cytotoxic) to attack cancer cells. These drugs are usually given intravenously either by injection or infusion. Some chemo drugs are available in pill form. Chemo is the primary treatment for small cell lung cancer (SCLC). For non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), your doctor may recommend chemotherapy either before or after surgery.

Types of Treatment

Chemotherapy is one of the primary treatment options for small cell lung cancer (SCLC). It involves the use of drugs to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing and dividing. Typically, chemotherapy for SCLC is administered in cycles, with periods of treatment followed by rest periods to allow the body to recover. The specific chemotherapy drugs used may vary depending on the individual case and the stage of the cancer. Commonly used drugs for SCLC include etoposide and cisplatin or carboplatin. Chemotherapy can be given alone or in combination with other treatments such as radiation therapy or immunotherapy. It is important to note that the effectiveness of chemotherapy may vary from person to person, and the treatment plan is tailored to each patient’s specific needs.

Doctors give chemotherapy to many patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Which drugs are used depends on the type of non-small cell lung cancer: adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or large cell lung cancer.

There are four primary instances in which chemotherapy is used for NSCLC:

  • Before surgery
  • After surgery
  • As a standalone measure
  • In advanced cases

Neoadjuvant chemotherapy involves giving chemotherapy for several months prior to surgery. In some cases, cancer cells in the lymph nodes can be completely eliminated before surgery. Neoadjuvant chemotherapy has doubled the cure rate in patients with stage III non-small cell lung cancer. This technique has cured patients with some forms of lung cancer who would not have been cured by surgery alone.

Another treatment approach is to give chemotherapy after surgery (adjuvant chemotherapy). This lung cancer treatment technique depends on a variety of factors, including the size of the tumor. Adjuvant chemotherapy is often recommended when the cancer cells have spread to the lymph nodes. Traditional adjuvant chemotherapy can kill any remaining cancer cells that may have been missed during the operation and improves chances for a cure.

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What to Expect

A chemotherapy plan depends on the type and stage of lung cancer, overall health, and the personal treatment goals and preferences of the patient.

Usually an intravenous (IV) treatment, chemotherapy involves getting a quick shot into the vein or an infusion of the drug through a tube, which can take longer. This treatment may be delivered in a doctor’s office, clinic, or hospital. The chemotherapy treatment is delivered in cycles of 3 to 4 weeks. Between cycles, the patient rests and recovers. These drugs may be administered only once a week or over a few days of each cycle. If the lung cancer is advanced, four to six cycles of treatment may be recommended.

Side Effects

Chemotherapy drugs can have many side effects depending on the drug, dose, or the length of your treatment. These side effects can include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Tiredness
  • Greater risk of infection
  • Bruises
  • Easy bleeding

The side effects vary from one drug to another for many reasons. Not all chemo drugs cause hair loss, for example. Certain chemotherapy drugs or regimens have some side effects that are specific to it. And the side effects may vary a great deal from patient to patient. Some chemotherapy treatments cause peripheral neuropathy. There may be pain, burning, tingling, weakness, or cold sensitivity in the hands or feet. This usually goes away after treatments are finished.

How to relieve side effects of chemotherapy for lung cancer treatment

  • Eating a light meal before chemotherapy treatment
  • Drugs to treat nausea or vomiting
  • Some patients have found that relaxation techniques or hypnosis can help control nausea and vomiting.
  • Ginger or peppermint teas or candies to also ease chemo-related nausea
  • Cooling or cold caps that you can wear during chemo to stop or lessen hair loss