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Chemotherapy is being used in new ways to treat non-small cell lung cancer (NCSLC). Until a few years ago, only patients with late-stage lung cancer received chemotherapy to help prolong life. Now, chemotherapy is given at earlier stages, in addition to other treatments, to slow the progression of cancer and to help cure the disease.

“Chemotherapy has dramatically improved in the last decade,” says George R. Simon, MD, FACP, FCCP, director of thoracic oncology Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. “Doctors have more chemotherapy drugs to choose from and many have fewer side effects.”

Another innovation includes the addition of targeted drugs. Used alone or with chemotherapy, targeted therapies help control the disease longer in people with late-stage lung cancer.

As you discuss treatment options with your doctor, it’s helpful to understand how chemotherapy is used, when it may be recommended, when targeted therapies may be added, and what to expect from your treatment. Keep in mind that not all therapies are appropriate for everyone. Your doctor will work with you to individualize your treatment to your specific needs.

How Does Chemotherapy for Lung Cancer Work?

Cancer cells are abnormal cells that grow uncontrollably at a rapid rate. These cells invade the surrounding tissue, often forming tumors.

Chemotherapy uses powerful drugs to kill cancer cells. These drugs are usually given intravenously, through the blood veins, where they circulate throughout the body, destroying rapidly growing cells.

Unfortunately, some normal cells in the body also multiply rapidly, such as those in the hair follicles, bone marrow, and lining of the mouth and intestines. Chemotherapy drugs can’t tell the difference between these healthy cells and cancer cells, so some healthy cells may also be damaged during treatment. This is one reason for some of the side effects that can occur during chemotherapy.

What Are the Goals of Chemotherapy Treatment?

The goals of chemotherapy can vary, depending on a person’s health and the stage of the lung cancer. For people with non-small cell lung cancer, chemotherapy can help:

  • Cure cancer so that it does not come back. Surgery, or in some cases radiation therapy, is used to remove cancerous tumors and some of the surrounding tissue. Surgery to remove cancer provides the best chance of curing it. However, it’s not always possible to get all the cancer. So, chemotherapy and/or radiation may also be used, as adjuvant therapy to kill any remaining cancer cells. Adjuvant therapy is any treatment added to a main treatment to help prevent cancer from returning.

  • Control cancer by slowing the growth of cancer cells, keeping it from spreading, and killing cells that have spread to other parts of the body.

  • Relieve symptoms from cancer so that patients with lung cancer are more comfortable. This is called palliative care.

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