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Chemotherapy (chemo) is treatment with anti-cancer drugs that are put into a vein or taken by mouth. These drugs enter the bloodstream and go throughout the body, making this treatment useful for cancer anywhere in the body.

Doctors give chemo in cycles, with each round of treatment followed by a break to allow the body time to recover. Chemo cycles generally last about 3 to 4 weeks. (Some chemo drugs, though, are given every day.) Most often, chemo for non-small cell lung cancer uses 2 drugs.

When is chemo used?

  • Chemo (sometimes along with radiation) may be used to try to shrink a tumor before surgery.
  • Chemo (sometimes along with radiation) may be given after surgery to try to kill any cancer cells that may have been left behind.
  • Chemo may be given as the main treatment (sometimes along with radiation) for more advanced cancers or for some people who aren’t healthy enough for surgery.

Possible side effects of chemo

Chemo drugs kill cancer cells but they also damage some normal cells, causing side effects. These side effects depend on the type of drugs used, the amount given, and the length of treatment. Some common side effects include:

  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Increased chance of infections (from having too few white blood cells)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding (from having too few blood platelets)
  • Feeling tired all the time (from having too few low red blood cells)

Some chemo drugs can have other side effects. For instance, some drugs can damage nerves. This can cause numbness or tingling in the fingers and toes, and sometimes the arms and legs may feel weak. For more information, see Peripheral Neuropathy Caused by Chemotherapy.

Most of these side effects go away when treatment is over. If you have any problems with side effects, be sure to tell your doctor or nurse, as there are often ways to help.

For more information about the chemo used to treat lung cancer, see Lung Cancer (Non-Small Cell). For more general information about chemo and dealing with its side effects, see the Chemotherapy section of our website.

Last Medical Review: 08/18/2014
Last Revised: 02/24/2016