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.”
As far as treatment goes, if the lung cancer can be successfully removed with surgery, the patient has an excellent chance of surviving at least one year, and usually a better than 50% chance of living for five years or more after that. The challenge is detecting lung cancer early enough to make surgery possible.
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
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
Relieve symptoms from cancer so that patients with lung cancer are
more comfortable. This is called palliative care.