Chemotherapy medicine may be given in a tablet form or via a drip into the vein (“intravenously”).
There are a number of chemotherapy medicines that may be used in lung cancer and the doctor may choose a combination of these in the treatment. Some of the chemotherapy medicines used in lung cancer are cisplatin, carboplatin, paclitaxel, pemetrexed, docetaxel, vinorelbine or gemcitabine. These medicines are also used to treat other types of cancers.
Unlike radiation therapy, chemotherapy medicines circulate through the whole body. The benefit of this is that it may find cancer cells that surgery and/or radiation therapy has missed, but it also exposes healthy cells to the treatment. In the case of lung cancer, chemotherapy may be given in the days/weeks before surgery, to help shrink the tumour size before it is operated on. It may also be used to help relieve pain, allowing the patient to live more comfortably in their everyday life.
A specialist doctor, such as a medical oncologist, will plan and coordinate chemotherapy treatment. The dose and length of time for chemotherapy varies between patients, but generally chemotherapy is given in “cycles”, with medicine given over one or several days and this same dose repeated either weekly or every 3 -4 weeks for a number of cycles. Chemotherapy treatment is administered in a hospital or cancer (oncology) clinic. Depending on how the patient is feeling, they may stay in hospital for several days each cycle, or they may be able to go home each day if they live locally and feel well enough to be at home.
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Chemotherapy side effects vary depending on the type and combination of medicines used and the frequency and length of chemotherapy treatment. Most chemotherapy drugs cause at least some side effects, the most common being:
- Nausea and/or vomiting.
- Hair loss – which can occur from the head and/or all parts of the body. Hair may grow thinner or fall out completely. In most cases, it will grow back once the body has recovered from the treatment.
- Tiredness, often due to anaemia (decreased number of red blood cells). Tiredness may also be due to nausea and vomiting, and it is important to (if possible) get lots of sleep and eat nutritious foods while receiving chemotherapy. A dietician may assist with finding foods that are high in nutrients and will suit a person experiencing nausea.
- Infections, in particular affecting the respiratory, gastrointestinal and urinary organs, may occur due to the chemotherapy effect of decreasing the number of white blood cells in the body. The white blood cells work to fight infection and, with less numbers of these, the body is less able to ward off the common bacteria and viruses found in everyday life.
- Bleeding or bruising may also occur as chemotherapy reduces the number of platelets, which are important in preventing excessive bleeding and promoting blood clotting.
These side effects, while common and unpleasant, generally last only while the chemotherapy treatment is in progress and for a short while after. Mostly, the body recovers over time, depending on the general health status of the patient.