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Chemotherapy (chemo) is treatment with anti-cancer drugs injected 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.

When might chemotherapy be used?

Depending on the stage of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and other factors, chemo may be used in different situations:

  • Before surgery (sometimes along with radiation therapy) to try to shrink a tumor. This is known as neoadjuvant therapy.
  • After surgery (sometimes along with radiation therapy) to try to kill any cancer cells that might have been left behind. This is known as adjuvant therapy.
  • Along with radiation therapy (concurrent therapy) for some cancers that can’t be removed by surgery because the cancer has grown into nearby important structures
  • As the main treatment (sometimes along with radiation therapy) for more advanced cancers or for some people who aren’t healthy enough for surgery.

Chemo is often not recommended for patients in poor health, but advanced age by itself is not a barrier to getting chemo.

Drugs used to treat NSCLC

The chemo drugs most often used for NSCLC include:

  • Cisplatin
  • Carboplatin
  • Paclitaxel (Taxol)
  • Albumin-bound paclitaxel (nab-paclitaxel, Abraxane)
  • Docetaxel (Taxotere)
  • Gemcitabine (Gemzar)
  • Vinorelbine (Navelbine)
  • Irinotecan (Camptosar)
  • Etoposide (VP-16)
  • Vinblastine
  • Pemetrexed (Alimta)

Most often, treatment for NSCLC uses a combination of 2 chemo drugs. Studies have shown that adding a third chemo drug doesn’t add much benefit and is likely to cause more side effects. Single-drug chemo is sometimes used for people who might not tolerate combination chemotherapy well, such as those in poor overall health or who are elderly.

If a combination is used, it often includes cisplatin or carboplatin plus one other drug. Sometimes combinations that do not include these drugs, such as gemcitabine with vinorelbine or paclitaxel, may be used.

For people with advanced lung cancers who meet certain criteria, a targeted therapy drug such as bevacizumab (Avastin), ramucirumab (Cyramza), or necitumumab (Portrazza) may be added to treatment as well.

Doctors give chemo in cycles, with a period of treatment (usually 1 to 3 days) followed by a rest period to allow the body time to recover. Some chemo drugs, though, are given every day. Chemo cycles generally last about 3 to 4 weeks.

For advanced cancers, the initial chemo combination is often given for 4 to 6 cycles. Some doctors now recommend giving treatment beyond this with a single chemo or targeted drug, even in people who have had a good response to their initial chemotherapy. Some studies have found that this continuing treatment, known as maintenance therapy, might help keep the cancer in check and help some people live longer. For more information, see What’s new in non-small cell lung cancer research?

If the initial chemo treatment for advanced lung cancer is no longer working, the doctor may recommend second-line treatment with a single chemo drug such as docetaxel or pemetrexed, or with a targeted therapy or immunotherapy drug. Again, advanced age is no barrier to receiving these drugs as long as the person is in good general health.

Possible side effects

Chemo drugs attack cells that are dividing quickly, which is why they work against cancer cells. But other cells in the body, such as those in the bone marrow (where new blood cells are made), the lining of the mouth and intestines, and the hair follicles, also divide quickly. These cells are also likely to be affected by chemo, which can lead to certain side effects.

The side effects of chemo depend on the type and dose of drugs given and how long they are taken. 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)
  • Fatigue (from having too few red blood cells)

These side effects usually go away after treatment is finished. There are often ways to lessen these side effects. For example, drugs can be given to help prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting.

Some drugs can have specific side effects. For example, drugs such as cisplatin, vinorelbine, docetaxel, or paclitaxel can cause nerve damage (peripheral neuropathy). This can sometimes lead to symptoms (mainly in the hands and feet) such as pain, burning or tingling sensations, sensitivity to cold or heat, or weakness. In most people this goes away or gets better once treatment is stopped, but it may last a long time in some people. For more information, see Peripheral Neuropathy Caused by Chemotherapy.

Be sure to report any side effects you notice while getting chemo to your medical team so that they can be treated promptly. In some cases, the doses of the chemo drugs may need to be reduced or treatment may need to be delayed or stopped to prevent the effects from getting worse.

To learn more about chemo, see the Chemotherapy section of our website.


Last Medical Review: 08/15/2014
Last Revised: 02/08/2016