Chemotherapy for small cell lung cancer

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer drugs to destroy or damage cancer cells. The chemotherapy drug you have will depend on the type of lung cancer and its stage (its size and whether it has spread). Chemotherapy can also be given at the same time as radiotherapy to make treatment work better. This is called chemoradiation. Your specialist will explain what treatment you’ll have and will tell you about its possible side effects.

Chemotherapy is the main treatment for small-cell lung cancer. It is also used to treat non-small cell lung cancer. You may be given a combination of drugs that often include cisplatin or carboplatin. Chemotherapy can be given to:

  • improve the effects of radiotherapy (chemoradiation)
  • shrink the cancer
  • reduce the risk of cancer coming back
  • relieve symptoms.

Chemotherapy can also be given if the cancer comes back. It may be given with targeted therapy drugs.

Chemotherapy treatment

Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. They work by disrupting the way cancer cells grow and divide, but they also affect normal cells.

The chemotherapy you have depends on the type of lung cancer you have, its stage and how side effects are likely to affect you.

You can have chemotherapy for different reasons, depending on your situation. Your cancer doctor and specialist nurse will explain the aims of your treatment.


Chemoradiation means having your course of radiotherapy at the same time as you have your chemotherapy treatment. This is instead of finishing your course of chemotherapy and, after a short break, starting radiotherapy. Chemoradiation is often used when the cancer is locally advanced. Because chemoradiation involves having two treatments at the same time, you have more side effects to cope with. People need to be well enough to cope with these, but there’s lots that can be done to manage side effects.

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC)

Chemotherapy is the main treatment for SCLC. Cancers that grow more quickly often respond better to chemotherapy than to other treatments.

It may be given:

  • at the same time as radiotherapy (called chemoradiation) to make treatment work better
  • after lung surgery (this is rare) to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back
  • to control the cancer, help you to live for longer and improve your symptoms.

The drugs used

You usually have a combination of at least two drugs, but you can have treatment with a single drug. With both types of lung cancer you often have either cisplatin or carboplatin with one of these drugs:

  • etoposide
  • vinorelbine
  • gemcitabine
  • paclitaxel
  • docetaxel
  • pemetrexed.

Other chemotherapy drugs may also be used. Your doctor or nurse will give you more information. We have more information about individual chemotherapy drugs and some combined drugs.

If you need more treatment

If the cancer comes back or the chemotherapy didn’t work well, you can usually have further chemotherapy with different drugs.

Docetaxel or pemetrexed may be used to treat NSCLC that comes back. Sometimes, targeted therapy drugs are given with chemotherapy.

Back to Chemotherapy for small cell lung cancer

Your feelings

You may experience difficult feelings while having chemotherapy treatment. Talking these over can be helpful.

Where can you have chemotherapy?

You usually have chemotherapy in a chemotherapy day unit or clinic. If your treatment is more complex, you may need to stay in hospital.

Controlling symptoms

You may develop other symptoms after your lung cancer diagnosis. There are treatments to relieve these.