Chemotherapy Drugs

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body in order to kill 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 may be used:

  • Before surgery—to shrink the tumor and decrease the amount of tissue that needs to be removed
  • After surgery—to kill any remaining cancer cells and decrease the risk of return
  • To help relieve symptoms of metastatic cancer and extend survival time

Chemotherapy Drugs and Delivery

There are a variety of chemotherapy drugs. The choice and combination of drugs will be based on your particular cancer and reaction to drugs. Chemotherapy drugs for lung cancer may include:

  • Cisplatin
  • Carboplatin
  • Etoposide
  • Methotrexate
  • Irinotecan
  • Paclitaxel
  • Docetaxel
  • Topotecan
  • Gemcitabine
  • Vinorelbine
  • Vinblastine

Chemotherapy is most often given through an IV, but some forms can be given by mouth. It is delivered in cycles over a set period of time. A medical oncologist will determine how many cycles of chemotherapy are needed and what combination of drugs will work best.

Side Effects and Management

Though the drugs are designed to target cancer cells, they can affect healthy cells as well. The death of cancer cells and impact on healthy cells can cause a range of side effects. A medical oncologist will work to find the best drug combination and dosage to have the most impact on the cancer cells and minimal side effects on healthy tissue. Side effects or complications from chemotherapy may include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mouth sores
  • Fatigue due to anemia
  • Low white blood cell counts, which increase the risk of infection
  • Low platelets which can cause bruising or bleeding
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Hair loss
  • Cognitive and/or memory problems
  • Numbness, pain, or burning sensation in the hands and feet—peripheral neuropathy
  • Increased frequency and urgency of bowel and bladder function
  • Itching and skin rash

A variety of treatments are available to help manage side effects including medication, lifestyle changes, and alternative treatments. In some cases, the chemotherapy regimen may be adjusted to reduce severe side effects. The earlier the side effects are addressed, the more likely they will be controlled with a minimum of discomfort.

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