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Chemotherapy (chemo) is treatment with drugs given into a vein or taken by mouth. These drugs enter the bloodstream and go throughout the body. This treatment is useful for cancer that has spread to organs beyond the lung. Chemo is usually the main treatment for small cell lung cancer (SCLC).

Doctors give chemo in cycles, with each round of treatment followed by a rest period to allow the body time to recover. Chemo cycles often last about 3 to 4 weeks, and the first round of treatments is most often 4 to 6 cycles. Most often, chemo for SCLC combines 2 drugs. Chemo is not often used for patients in poor health, but older age by itself doesn’t mean you can’t get chemo.

Possible side effects

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. Common short-term side effects can 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 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 our document Peripheral Neuropathy Caused by Chemotherapy.

Most side effects go away when treatment is over, but some can last a long time. Be sure to tell your doctor or nurse if you have any side effects, as there are often ways to help. In some cases, the doses of the chemo drugs may need to be lowered or treatment may need to be delayed or stopped to prevent the side effects from getting worse.

For more information about the chemo used to treat small cell lung cancer, see our document Lung Cancer (Small Cell).

To learn more about chemo in general please see the “Chemotherapy” section of our website, or our document A Guide to Chemotherapy.

Last Medical Review: 09/09/2014
Last Revised: 01/19/2016