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Side Effects of Lung Cancer Treatments

written by: BStone • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 2/20/2011

From surgery to chemotherapy, learn about the side effects of lung cancer treatments. Understanding the impact of each treatment can help patients prepare for the experience.

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    Treating Lung Cancer

    Responsible for the most cancer related deaths, lung cancer is a very serious disease that usually requires multiple forms of treatment. While what may be used depends on the stage and type of the disease, treatment usually involves one or more of the following therapies:

    • Surgery
    • Chemotherapy
    • Radiation therapy
    • Targeted drug therapy

    Being aware of what effect these therapies will have on the body aside from destroying cancer cells or slowing the spread of a tumor, both patients and doctors can decide what is the best approach for each individual. Also, knowing the side effects of lung cancer treatments, patients can take steps to improve well-being and lessen the negative impact of each therapy.

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    Surgery

    When surgical removal of a tumor is possible it is one of the best and most effective ways to treat cancer. Sometimes surgery may be used alongside another therapy, such as chemo or radiation treatments to ensure that all cancer cells are destroyed and that the disease does not re-manifest, or to shrink a tumor before being surgically removed. What are the side effects of lung cancer surgery?

    For lung cancer it may be possible to only remove part of a lung, which is a lobectomy, or the entire lung may be removed to rid the body of the cancer. This procedure is known as a pneumonectomy. In some cases only a small section of lung tissue is removed. With a lobectomy and a pneumonectomy a large amount of a lung or an entire lung are no longer there to be used. After surgery chest tubes are used to remove excess fluid that may have accumulated in the chest cavity.

    When lung function is impaired at all the entire body is receiving less oxygenated blood. This leads to a general lack of energy and weakness. Shortness of breath and pain in the chest and arms are also possible side effects. A respiratory therapist will help to teach a patient how to improve lung function and to breath deeply.

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    Chemotherapy

    With chemotherapy, drugs are taken to destroy cancer cells. This form of treatment can be useful when used in conjunction with surgery or radiation therapy, or it may be helpful for prolonging life in advanced lung cancer cases. Medications are either taken by mouth or directly injected into a vein. The drugs travel through the bloodstream, attacking cancer cells throughout the body, but also harming healthy cells.

    The side effects of chemotherapy can be the most disturbing to go through, although each patient will have their own individual experience, and there are many different chemo drugs for lung cancer. In general side effects include:

    • Feeling tired
    • Susceptible to infections
    • Nausea
    • Diarrhea
    • Hair loss or thinning
    • Mouth ulcers

    Targeted therapy drugs are similar to chemo drugs in that they destroy cancer cells, but these medications act on specific cells, such as those that form new blood vessels to nourish a tumor. They tend to have less severe side effects then chemotherapy because their action is more specific, although each drug may have its own specific side effects to be aware of.

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    Radiation Therapy

    With radiotherapy, high energy x-rays are used to kill cancer cells. This form of treatment may be used before or after lung surgery, or as a primary treatment. Radiotherapy is particularly important for patients who cannot have surgery, but who have small tumors. Treatment is given in several sessions over a period of several weeks.

    The most common side effects of using radiation to treat lung cancer include fatigue and skin irritation. While these effects can be intense during treatment they do lessen once the body has a chance to recover after radiotherapy is over. Hair loss in the chest area is also possible. Some people have a decreased appetite and nausea. Esophagitis, an inflammation of the esophagus may be a problem as well, making it difficult to swallow food. Inflammation of the lungs is a side effect that manifests months after radiation treatments. It is characterized by coughing, trouble breathing and a fever, and tends to clear up after several weeks.

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    Dealing with Side Effects

    There are many side effects of lung cancer treatments. As most patients will go through more then one form of treatment, the effects of these therapies can be very difficult to deal with. With support from your health care provider, the option of easing side effects with alternative medicine, and time, the side effects can be easier to deal with or in many cases, will go away.

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    References

    MayoClinic <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cancer-surgery/CA00033>

    WebMD <http://www.webmd.com/lung-cancer/lung-surgery-thoracotomy-for-lung-cancer>

    Radiology Info <http://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=lungcancer>

    Cancer Research UK <http://www.cancerhelp.org.uk/type/lung-cancer/treatment/chemotherapy/side-effects-of-lung-cancer-chemotherapy>

    American Cancer Society <http://www.cancer.org/cancer/lungcancer-non-smallcell/detailedguide/non-small-cell-lung-cancer-treating-targeted-therapies>