Lung Cancer

Side effects of chemotherapy for lung cancer

Chemotherapy is often used to treat people with lung cancer. The drugs have side effects which vary from one drug to another and according to the number of treatments given. 

Treatment has changed over the years and may not be as bad as expected. One man said that individual side effects can usually be dealt with, but it is difficult when there are many side effects at the same time.

Some people have chemotherapy as an out-patient while others have to stay in hospital (see 'Lung cancer - chemotherapy'). Some people manage to work between treatments. One person said that it was helpful to go back to work because it stopped her thinking about the next lot of chemotherapy. 

Chemotherapy drugs are usually given into a vein. After many treatments these veins may collapse or may become hard and uncomfortable. Occasionally, if chemotherapy has to be given repeatedly it is delivered via a Hickman line, tube going into a bigger vein in the chest which is left in place. One woman described how her Hickman line was inserted. She said that it had made treatment much easier.

Most people felt nausea or were sick at some stage, but this was often controlled with medication. It is common practice to have anti-sickness drugs before chemotherapy and in the majority of patients this is successful.

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Hair loss is common during chemotherapy. One man said that he was surprised to find that he had lost his hair from his ears, arms and legs as well as well as his head. Some people were upset when they lost their hair, but most people said that they soon got used to their new image. Some wore wigs, hats or bandanas to conceal their lack of hair.

Many people said that chemotherapy made them feel physically tired and sometimes depressed. One man said that he felt as though he had influenza. He also mentioned, like many others, that his sense of taste had been affected. Someone else mentioned a temporary loss of smell.

Pins and needles in fingers or toes are quite common with some types of chemotherapy. One woman said that her nails had gone a funny colour. Sense of touch, balance and hearing may also be affected. One man described his cold feet, muscle pains and a strange feeling that made him want to move his legs all the time, sometimes described by doctors as “restless legs”.

Some people recalled that they had suffered from oral thrush, sore throat, sore gums, or mouth ulcers when they were being treated. One woman said she lived on ice cream and gruel like porridge. Another woman, who had high doses of chemotherapy as part of a trial in 1995, still has a dry mouth today. She remembered her terrible mouth ulcers and lack of control over bodily functions. Others said that they had constipation as well as diarrhoea.

Chemotherapy can have serious side effects and may have to be stopped before the course is finished. It may reduce the number of normal cells in the blood to dangerous levels. Sometimes platelets (which help blood clotting) are badly affected. If this happens people can bruise very easily. One woman described the “purply red spots” that developed under her skin.

The red blood cells that contain haemoglobin and carry oxygen may also be affected. Abnormally low levels may lead to breathlessness. The white cell count (those that fight infection) can drop to dangerous levels too. One man said that he had developed pneumonia while on chemotherapy because he hadn't been warned that his white blood count and immune system would be badly affected by the treatment.

Sometimes the drugs used to treat or prevent the side effects of chemotherapy drugs themselves cause side effects.


Last reviewed May 2016.
Last updated May 2012.



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