There are several methods for treating non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) depending on how early the condition is detected, and where it is located. When the cancer is diagnosed early - before it has metastasized beyond the lungs - surgery can be performed to remove the diseased tissue. A segmental resection is done to remove small, localized tumors; a lobectomy is done to remove a single lobe of the lung; and a pneumonectomy can be performed to remove an entire lung.
Once NSCLC has moved beyond the lungs, radiation therapy and chemotherapy become necessary. Radiation therapy is typically used in later stages of the disease to shrink tumors that are found in specific locations (lymph nodes, brain, etc.). Chemotherapy, also used during later stages, is a systemic approach.
This article will explain how chemo works, and describe the most common side effects caused by the chemicals. You'll also learn about circumstances that warrant its use.
How Chemo Works To Cure Lung Cancer
There are millions of cells that comprise the human body. They normally grow and die in a uniform, controlled manner. Lung cancer begins when a normal, healthy cell is transformed into a cancer cell. This can happen due to exposure to cigarette smoke, air pollution, and many other stimuli. The diseased cell splits (often quickly), creating additional cancer cells, which also split. With time, the disease spreads throughout the lungs, and metastasizes to the lymph nodes, brain, liver, and bones.
Chemotherapy drugs target and kill cells that split faster than normal. In doing so, it can slow the spread of NSCLC and in some cases, eliminate it. The downside to using these drugs is that healthy cells are often caught in the crossfire. As they split, the medications kill them, causing numerous side effects.
Common Side Effects And Why They Occur
Two of the most common side effects associated with chemo are nausea and hair loss. Nausea may be caused, in part, by the death of healthy cells in the stomach's lining. These cells usually split more quickly than other healthy cells in the body, and thus are targeted by the chemotherapy drugs. This is also the case with the cells that make up hair follicles. As they split, the medications kill them, causing the patient's hair to fall out.
Other common symptoms include diarrhea, fatigue, mouth sores, and a loss in appetite. Many patients also suffer from anemia as their red blood cell count drops.
There are over one hundred medications that can be used during chemo today. In most cases, two or more are administered based on the extent of metastasis, and the stage of the disease. The reason is because different drugs are more effective during specific periods of a cell's life.
How The Medications Are Delivered
Chemo drugs are usually administered intravenously through a catheter. However, they are occasionally delivered via a shot, or in tablet form. Doctors often want to oversee therapy in the hospital to ensure the patient takes the correct dosage. However, more are becoming receptive to allowing patients to self-administer at home. The size of the doses and the frequency with which they are delivered will depend largely on the circumstances surrounding the patient's condition.
Conditions When Chemotherapy Is Warranted
Recall from earlier that chemotherapy is a systemic approach. This is in contrast to radiation therapy, which is used to treat localized tumors. Chemo medications reach lung cancer cells in every area of the body by traveling through the bloodstream.
The drugs are often administered following lung cancer surgery, even when diseased cells cannot be detected outside the lungs. This is done to ensure that all cancer cells have been killed in order to prevent a recurrence.
Sometimes, chemo is given prior to surgery. This is done to shrink the tumor, thus making it easier to remove.
In late-stage non-small cell lung cancer, chemotherapy is often given to lessen the severity of the patient's symptoms. In such cases, the main goal of treatment is to improve the person's quality of life, not cure the disease.
The drugs given during chemotherapy are effective in killing diseased cells. But realize they can present severe side effects. If you suffer from lung cancer, ask your doctor whether this form of treatment is a good option.