When you breathe, air enters your lungs through large tubes called bronchi. The bronchi connect from your windpipe (trachea) and branch into your lungs in smaller tubes. These small tubes in the lungs are called bronchioles. Air passes down through the bronchioles to tiny sacs called alveoli. Through these sacs, air enters the bloodstream as usable oxygen. Lung cancer often starts in the cells that line the bronchi, bronchioles, and alveoli.

Anatomy of Lungs

Lung cancer is the second most common type of cancer in both women and men and is the leading cause of cancer deaths in adults. About 8 out of 10 deaths from lung cancer are thought to be caused by smoking. The risk of lung cancer is also increased by exposure to secondhand smoke, radon, and asbestos.

The 2 main types of lung cancer are called small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). These names are based on the way the cells look under a microscope. Non-small cell lung cancer is the more common type and does not spread as quickly as small-cell lung cancer. Lung cancer may grow in the lungs or spread to other parts of the body, including:

Once your doctor has found which type of lung cancer you have, the tumors will be staged. Your doctor will then prescribe the right treatment for you.

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Most lung cancers are the non-small cell type. There are 3 main types of non-small cell lung cancer:

There are several treatment options for non-small cell lung cancer. These include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, biologic therapy, and other prescription medications. Treatment depends on the stage and other traits of the cancer.

Small Cell Lung Cancer

Chemotherapy is often used to treat small cell lung cancer. Treatment can also include radiation therapy. Surgery is often not the only treatment chosen. The treatment you receive is based on the stage of the cancer and other factors. Small cell lung cancer can be limited stage or extensive stage. Limited-stage cancer is found only in one lung. Extensive-stage cancer has spread outside the lung where it started. Your doctor will choose a treatment that is best for you based on the stage and other factors.

Chemotherapy Can Cause Side Effects

Chemotherapy stops or slows the growth of cancer cells. Often, cancer cells are fast growing. But chemo also damages healthy cells that divide quickly. These healthy cells can include cells in the bone marrow that make blood, cells in the lining of the gut and mouth, and hair cells. Damage to healthy cells is what causes many chemo side effects. Here's how it works:

  • When chemo damages healthy blood cells, the result can be:
  • Chemo may damage healthy cells in the stomach. The chemo drugs then irritate these areas, which could result in nausea and vomiting. Chemotherapy drugs may also trigger signals in the brain that tell your body to vomit.
  • When chemo affects healthy cells surrounding hair follicles, the result can be hair loss. Hair loss is also known as alopecia.
A Closer Look: Arthur*
Arthur is diagnosed with stage IIB non-small cell lung cancer.
He had surgery to remove the tumor. But Arthur's tumor was large. His doctor prescribes 3 cycles of a chemo regimen after surgery. His treatment aims to prevent recurrence of the cancer.
His doctor tells him that this chemo combination can cause side effects, including:
  • Low blood cells
  • Fatigue (feeling tired or weak)
  • Nausea and vomiting
Arthur and his doctor discuss how they can prepare for and possibly prevent some of these side effects.
His doctor works up a plan for when the side effects occur.
He is given an anti-nausea drug during chemo to control nausea and vomiting.

*This is a fictional case study based on chemo patient experiences. Your experience is unique. Your doctor and care team will create a plan that will best treat your type of cancer and manage your chemo side effects.

A Closer Look: Delfina*
At age 70, Delfina is diagnosed with extensive stage SCLC. The cancer has spread to her lymph nodes and lungs.
Her doctor prescribes a chemo regimen for 3 to 6 months.
Delfina brings her daughter to speak with her doctor in English. They discuss how Delfina can prepare for or prevent expected side effects.
Her doctor tells Delfina's daughter that this chemo regimen is known to cause certain side effects. These include:
  • Low blood cells
  • Creatinine increases (increase in a blood component that may indicate kidney problems)
  • Increased risk of infections
  • Nausea and vomiting
Delfina's doctor works up a plan to address the chemo side effects. The oncology nurse gives Delfina a Spanish-language brochure about how to help avoid the risk of germs that can cause infections.
An anti-nausea medication is also given to Delfina during chemo to control nausea and vomiting.

*This is a fictional case study based on chemo patient experiences. Your experience is unique. Your doctor and care team will create a plan that will best treat your type of cancer and manage your chemo side effects.

Learn more about managing chemo side effects and make sure to speak with your doctor and care team to plan for managing side effects!

Lung Cancer Resources

  • Getting Started:
    Questions Worksheet

  • The Chemotherapy and Infection Discussion Guide can help you understand your
    chance for infection

    Infection can be a serious result of chemo. Find out the factors that affect your chance of infection. Simply answer a few questions, and then print your results to share with your doctor.

    Use the Chemotherapy and Infection Discussion Guide to find out more.

  • Survivor Story

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  • Want to learn about specific side effects?

  • Want to learn about specific side effects?