Remember, your healthcare team are always the best source of information about your cancer and its treatment, and can give you personalised information. So don’t hesitate to get in touch with them with any questions you may have.
As much as possible, cancer treatments are designed to only damage the cancer in your body. But sometimes heathy parts of your body can be damaged too. The damage to these healthy parts is what causes side effects.1
Your healthcare team can tell you more about any side effects you may experience while you’re receiving a treatment. You should always tell them if you have a side effect, either at appointments or after you have gone home. They can help you manage side effects by adjusting the dose of any chemotherapy you are taking, and/or by prescribing supportive medications to help ease them.
You should never take a medicine (or a herbal or complementary therapy) to treat a side effect unless your healthcare team has already told you it is safe to do so.
If a side effect is very bad, your healthcare team may stop a treatment you are receiving. Some people worry about this, and avoid talking about their side effects, but it is important that you are always honest with your healthcare team. This is because:
There are many different types of chemotherapy available, but all of them treat cancer in a similar way. They attack cells that are dividing and growing quickly in your body (like cancer cells) to help control the cancer.2
This will depend on the type of chemotherapy you have.
Some chemotherapies are given with an IV drip in hospital or at a clinic. Every clinic is different, but as a general guide:
Other chemotherapies are available as pills or tablets that you can take at home. You will need to come in and see your oncologist for some health checks before beginning to take them, and at regular intervals afterwards. The number of pills you take, how often you take them, and for how long will depend on the specific medicine you have been prescribed.
Side effects will vary depending on exactly what chemotherapy you are receiving. Your healthcare team will be able to tell you what are the most common side effects that occur in people who are receiving the same therapy as you.
We have put together a list of common side effects that can affect people who are receiving chemotherapy.2 Looking at this may feel a bit overwhelming, or cause you some worries, but it is important to remember that everyone is different, and you may only experience some of the these side effects. You may also have different side effects, or experience none of these at all.
Radiotherapy is a type of treatment where radioactivity is used to try and damage the cells in tumours. There are a few different ways to receive radiotherapy.3
External radiotherapy uses very narrow beams of high-intensity radiation (a bit like an invisible laser) to reach and damage tumours inside your body.
An implant containing radioactive material is put into your body near the cancer, or radioactive material is injected into your blood, or given to you as a drink.
External radiotherapy is given with a special machine,4 so you need to attend an appointment at a hospital or clinic.
Once there, you will lie on a bed and have marks made on your skin in a long-lasting ink, so that the technician can always line up the radiation in the same place. If you are having radiotherapy on your head or neck, you will have a mask that holds your head in place, and the ink marks will be made on this.4
The radiotherapy technician will adjust the machine and the position you are lying in so that the radiation can reach where the cancer is. Once ready, the machine sends an invisible beam of radiation to your cancer.4
After you have had your radiotherapy, the technician may give you some instructions to follow, and then you can head home.
If you are having an implanted therapy, this may require some surgery.4 In these cases, your healthcare team will guide you through exactly what will happen. How long implants are left in varies. Some may only be there for a few minutes, whereas others may be a few days. Some very small implants can be left in permanently, as they only contain a small amount of radiation, and this gradually decreases over time. You may need to stay in hospital for a few days while any excess radiation leaves your body, and visitors may be limited during this time to avoid exposing them to any radiation you may be emitting.4.5
If you are receiving a therapy that you inject or swallow, you will receive this in a hospital or clinic. Again, you may need to stay in the hospital for a while until the excess radiation has left your body.4
Side effects with radiotherapy typically appear in the week or two after your appointment and go away on their own. They might include:3
Surgery is used to try and remove areas of the cancer from within your body. Sometimes this is done to remove all the cancer, and other times it is done to reduce the amount of cancer ahead of you receiving another type of treatment.6
Your exact surgical procedure will depend on where your cancer is growing, and what type of surgery you are having. If you are having surgery that requires a general anaesthetic, your experience might be something like the following:
As with any treatment, any side effects you experience will depend on your situation, and what your surgery has involved. Some common side effects of surgery include:9
If your cancer is advanced, you may still receive some of the treatments described above, but instead of only treating your lungs, they may also be used to treat any areas where the cancer may have spread. You may also begin new treatments, depending on what your healthcare team decide is best for you. Some of these advanced cancer treatments are described below.
Targeted therapies are designed to find specific parts of cancer cells that make them stand out from healthy cells.10 These treatments can be made either from chemicals or from proteins called ‘monoclonal antibodies’.
Targeted therapies include treatments known as ‘inhibitors’, which are specifically designed to treat either ALK, RET, or ROS1 alterations in NSCLC.11
You can learn more about these alterations and how they are involved in NSCLC here
Targeted therapies can be either an intravenous treatment (you can read more about IV therapies under the ‘Chemotherapy’ section, above), or pills or tablets that you can take at home.10
See the top tips in the ‘Chemotherapy’ section above.
Even though targeted therapies are designed to find cancer cells and avoid damaging healthy cells, they can still cause some side effects. These can be different from chemotherapy side effects.
The exact side effects you get will depend on what treatment you are taking. Your healthcare team can take you through exactly what is known about your treatment, but some typical side effects of targeted therapies might include:11
Immunotherapy is different from a lot of other treatments. Instead of working to directly attack cancer, immunotherapy helps boost your immune system so that it can fight the cancer more effectively.12
Immunotherapies are usually given intravenously, through a needle in your arm or the back of your hand (you can read more about IV therapies under the ‘Chemotherapy’ section above.13)
Some people find the idea of their immune system attacking their cancer empowering,14 and there is lots of information in the news about immunotherapies being highly effective. But it’s important to be aware that not everyone who tries immunotherapy responds – in some people, it just doesn’t seem to work.15 This can be disappointing, but try and focus on the fact that there are lots of other treatments available for you to try, and your healthcare team are there to support you along the way.
Because immunotherapies work differently from other treatments, their side effects can be a little different too. Common side effects that you might experience are listed below,16 but these will vary between immunotherapies and individual people, so it’s best to ask your healthcare team for advice that’s most relevant to you:
Here, we introduce you to the care team that will support you through your cancer journey, and guide you through getting the most out of your appointments and discussions.
For some, it might be time to consider planning aspects of life if treatment stops working.