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Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer: Advances in Chemotherapy

What About Side Effects of Chemotherapy for Lung Cancer?

Chemotherapy does have side effects, but not everyone experiences them to the same extent.

“There has been a dramatic change in our ability to minimize side effects over the last few decades,” says Simon. “Modern chemotherapy drugs are more effective and generally less toxic. And many drugs don’t cause hair loss, nerve damage, hearing loss, kidney damage, or allergic reactions.”

Drugs that counteract nausea and vomiting -- common chemotherapy side effects -- have also improved. “I expect only a minority of my patients to experience nausea and vomiting,” says Simon. “We have many effective medications to help reduce nausea.” If you do feel nauseous, be sure to talk with your doctor.

Fatigue remains a factor for most patients and tends to last several days after therapy. “But we have a few tricks up our sleeve to deal with it,” says Simon. Anemia, a condition that occurs when your body doesn’t have enough red blood cells, is one cause of fatigue and can be treated or corrected with a blood transfusion. Depression can also be associated with fatigue, so it’s important for doctors to keep an eye out for it and treat it as necessary.

Talk with your doctor about the specific side effects of your chemotherapy treatment and what you can do to lessen them.

What Are Targeted Therapies for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer?

Most conventional chemotherapy drugs are derived from nature, but targeted therapy drugs are designed by man. Targeted therapy works by inhibiting the function of certain proteins that make cancer cells grow. These drugs are prescribed mainly for people with late-stage lung cancer, but are being evaluated for use in earlier stages.

  • A therapy called bevacizumab (Avastin) prevents the formation of new blood vessels, which keeps a tumor from growing. It does this by blocking a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor. Studies show that when given in combination with another chemotherapy drug, bevacizumab can help lengthen life in people with late-stage NSCLC. Because this drug can cause serious bleeding, there are limits to who can take it. 
  • Another drug, erlotinib (Tarceva), blocks the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). This is a protein found on the surface of cells that tells them to grow and divide. Cancer cells generally have too much EGFR, and by blocking these proteins, the drug prevents cancer cells growing. Unlike many other treatments for lung cancer, erlotinib is given by pill. Erlotinib may be given to people who are no longer responding to their first treatment with chemotherapy. This drug has side effects, including tiredness, diarrhea, and acne-like rash.

Targeted therapies don’t work for all patients. Not all tumors have the same targets, so a drug that works for one person may not work for another. Researchers are developing tests that can help identify which drugs will help which patients.

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