Chemotherapy is the treatment of cancer with anticancer (cytotoxic) drugs. The aim of chemotherapy is to kill cancer cells while doing the least possible damage to healthy cells. There are many different types of chemotherapy drugs and different combinations can be used.

Chemotherapy may be given in a number of situations:

  • before surgery, to try to shrink the cancer and make the operation easier (rarely done)
  • before radiation treatment (done occasionally)
  • during radiation treatment (chemoradiation) to increase the effectiveness of the radiation treatment (often done)
  • after surgery to reduce the chances of the cancer coming back (often done)
  • as palliative treatment for a large cancer in the lung or for cancer that has spread beyond the lung to reduce symptoms and improve your quality of life or extend your life (commonly done)
  • as the standard first treatment for most people with small cell lung cancer (often done).

Generally, chemotherapy is given through an intravenous (IV) drip or a plastic catheter (tube) inserted into a vein in your arm, hand or chest. Some types of chemotherapy are given orally (in tablet form).

Chemotherapy may be given every three to four weeks, depending on the type or combination of chemotherapy you are having. The number of treatments you have will depend on the type of lung cancer you have and how well your body is handling the side effects. If you have tablet chemotherapy you will probably take it every day.

Side effects of chemotherapy

Most of the side effects are usually temporary and go away after treatment or within a few months of finishing treatment. A few people manage to continue with their normal life at home and work throughout their chemotherapy.

Side effects of chemotherapy may include:

  • infections—the drugs can lower your immune system's ability to suppress infection
  • easy bruising or bleeding
  • mouth ulcers
  • diarrhoea or constipation
  • feeling sick (nausea) or vomiting
  • tiredness
  • loss of appetite or taste changes
  • hair loss
  • hearing loss
  • pins and needles or numbness
  • skin rash.

If fever develops (if your temperature is 38 degrees or over) or you feel unwell, even with a normal temperature, don't wait to see what happens—take action quickly. Contact your local hospital and follow the advice given. 

For more information on chemotherapy and its side effects, phone the nurses on the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237).

For a copy of Chemotherapy/Hahau, contact your local Cancer Society or read it online on the Society's website.