The Use of Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy in Lung Cancer Treatment

Lung cancer may be treated by a variety of therapies including surgery, but chemotherapy and radiation treatments are used extensively to treat the disease whether surgery takes place or not.


Chemotherapy involves drug medication which is designed to kill fast growing cells in the body – cancer cells are fast growing and it is this uncontrolled growth which causes tumors to develop. Unfortunately, the medications which are administered are unable to differentiate between cancer cells and other fast growing cells, such as the red blood cells and hair. As a consequence, there are side effects involved in receiving chemotherapy which includes hair loss and other debilitating symptoms.

Many patients do not like the idea of receiving chemotherapy because they have heard of the side effects usually associated with receiving the treatment. Management of the side effects has come a long way and in many instances, patients do not experience them to as great an extent as they originally anticipated.

Typically, chemotherapy will involve a combination of drugs which will target specific types of cancer cell – not all cancer cells are fast growing, and different drugs will attack different types of cancer cell depending on the stage it has reached.

Radiotherapy or Radiation Treatment

Radiation treatment uses ionizing radiation such as gamma rays to kill cancer cells. The radiation can be targeted very precisely at the area where the cancer has occurred within the body and in some instances is capable of being delivered so that it affects only the tumor and not healthy tissue.

Radiation treatment may also be used to reduce the size of a tumor so that it becomes operable.

Radiation stops cells from undergoing division and forming new copies of the DNA which they contain. If a cell is reproducing quickly, it is likely to be susceptible to radiation which will interfere in its development and as cancer cells are fast growing, they are especially vulnerable to the treatment. Unfortunately, cancer cells are not the only cells which are fast growing as we have already seen, and radiation therapy affects blood cells, hair and skin.

Side effects include hair loss, redness of the skin, itching, loss of skin through the outer layers sloughing off, pain and heightened sensitivity, skin pigmentation and swelling (known as “edema”).

Both therapies may cause a loss in appetite, changes in how your sense of taste and heart issues as well as nausea and vomiting. Patients undergoing these treatments tend to become tired very easily while receiving treatment and there is an increased risk of infection as the white blood cells are also adversely affected by the treatment.

We have already noted that radiation treatment may be used to shrink a tumor so it may be removed, but they also are used to tackle cancers which do not lend themselves to surgery in the first instance. Small Cell Lung Cancer (SCLC) is usually inoperable and is treated by these joint therapies while operable lung cancers use these treatments both before and after surgery to ensure that any cells which have not been removed by surgery are killed off to prevent recurrence of the condition.

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