Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body in order to kill cancer cells. The side effects come from the fact that it destroys normal cells as well as cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be given either alone or along with radiation therapy. When given alone, it is given in a higher dose designed to kill off cancer cells. When given along with radiation therapy, it is delivered at a lower dose and is designed to make the cancer more sensitive to the radiation.
Chemotherapy is usually given through an IV, but some forms can be given by mouth. Your treatment team will tell you how many cycles or courses of chemotherapy are best for you. Usually there are between 4-6 cycles of chemotherapy given when the chemotherapy is delivered on its own, and up to 10 cycles of chemotherapy when the drugs are given along with radiation therapy. The side effects and amount of time required in the doctor’s office depend on the type of chemotherapy you receive, as well as how many cycles you get and how often.
Types of Chemotherapy Drugs
There are a number of chemotherapy drugs that are available. Some examples include:
Most treatment regimens will combine 2 or more of these drugs. The types, dosages, and duration of treatment will depend on the stage and type of your tumor and how well it responds to treatment.
While undergoing chemotherapy, most people experience:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Hair loss
- Fuzziness in thinking, memory problems
Other side effects include:
- Risk of infection
- Skin irritation, cracked nails
- Allergic reactions
- Mouth sores
- Tendency to bleed and bruise easily
- Fluid retention
- Bladder problems
- Numbness in limbs
- Fever or chills
- Low blood cell counts (such as anemia )
To manage other side effects, you may need to make diet and lifestyle changes and take medication. For example, your doctor may recommend that you eat several small meals throughout the day and avoid alcohol. Light exercise (such as walking for 30 minutes) may help to fight fatigue.
Some of these side effects go away soon after chemotherapy has ended, while others linger after treatment.
When to Call Your Doctor
Contact your doctor if you develop:
- Signs of infection, including fever (100.3°F [37.9°C]) and chills
- Sores in your mouth or throat
- Black and blue marks on your skin
- Nausea, vomiting, loose or runny bowel movements
- Pain that you cannot control with the medication you have been given
- Cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain
- Joint pain, fatigue, stiffness, rash, or other new symptoms
- Tingling in your fingers or toes or ringing in your ears
- Weight gain or loss of 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) or more
Newer Treatment Options
Epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFR) play a role in the development of cells, including cancer cells. Some people who have lung cancer also have a mutation that affects EGFR. Because of this, medications, like cetuximab, have been created to target the action of this receptor. Doctors can test a tissue sample or do blood tests to find out if someone has this mutation. If the result is positive, then treatment with this type of targeted therapy may help the person live longer.
There is also a drug called crizotinib that targets a gene mutation on the anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) gene. This mutation has been linked to adenocarcinoma, a common kind of lung cancer that affects both smokers and non-smokers. Crizotinib may be able to stop cancer from growing and shrink tumors.
Other targeted therapies that are being researched include:
These drugs are designed to target certain molecules in the cancer cells. By interfering with these molecules, the ability of the cancer to grow and spread is blocked.
Immunotherapy involves using medications or substances made by the body to increase or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. Monoclonal antibodies are an example of immunotherapy. These antibodies are designed to attack certain proteins in the cancer cells, which helps the immune system fight cancer.
Researchers continue to study new treatments that may be able to stop cancer and prolong life.
- Reviewer: Mohei Abouzied, MD
- Review Date: 09/2015 -
- Update Date: 09/17/2014 -