Common non-small cell lung cancer medications include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted drug therapy.

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Non-small cell lung cancer makes up much of lung cancer cases and tends to be less aggressive.

Approximately 85% of people with a diagnosis of lung cancer experience a type called non-small cell lung cancer. The term non-small cell lung cancer encompasses multiple subtypes of lung cancer, including adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and large cell carcinoma.

Treatment of non-small cell lung cancer depends on the stage, location, size, and number of tumors. Below, we explore the role of medications in the treatment plan and other treatment options.

Cancer treatment teams use medications to help slow or stop the growth of cancer cells. Often, non-small cell lung cancer treatment includes a combination of techniques. For many people, medications usually play an important role in treating non-small cell lung cancer. These different medications include the below.

Chemotherapy helps treat cancer by using powerful chemicals to interfere with cancer cell growth or kill cancer cells. According to a 2019 article, chemotherapy remains a key part of lung cancer treatment.


Types of chemotherapy that doctors sometimes use to treat non-small cell lung cancer include:

  • cisplatin
  • carboplatin
  • paclitaxel
  • docetaxel
  • gemcitabine
  • pemetrexed
  • etoposide


Administering chemotherapy typically occurs through an IV infusion, or injection directly into the bloodstream. However, people can sometimes take the medication in oral pill form.

Healthcare professionals usually prescribe chemotherapy in cycles, meaning a person will need to undergo repeated instances of taking the medication and having rest periods. A chemotherapy cycle may last around 3–4 weeks, and people may complete four to six cycles over the course of treatment.

Side effects

Potential side effects of chemotherapy may include:

Read more about chemotherapy side effects.

Immunotherapy uses medications to help the immune system find and destroy cancer cells more effectively. Typical cells go through stages of growth and death to constantly replace older cells with new ones. Cancer cells bypass this process and contain mutations that stop the immune system from attacking them.

Immunotherapy medications target specific proteins in cancer cells to boost the immune system’s response.

Read more about immunotherapy versus chemotherapy.


Currently, researchers have identified two main types of immunotherapy drugs useful for the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer:

  • PD-1 immune checkpoint inhibitors, which include nivolumab, pembrolizumab, cemiplimab, atezolizumab, and durvalumab
  • CTLA-4 immune checkpoint inhibitors, which include ipilimumab and tremelimumab


Administering immunotherapy medication occurs through IV infusions. The frequency and dose depend on the type of medication and cancer stage.

Side effects

Potential side effects include:

  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • joint pain
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • itching and soreness
  • fatigue
  • cough or congestion
  • skin rash
  • body pains and swelling
  • swelling or weight gain
  • infection
  • organ inflammation

A person may also have flu-like symptoms such, which include:

  • fever
  • chills
  • body weakness
  • dizziness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • muscle or joint aches
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • difficulty breathing
  • low or high blood pressure

Read more about immunotherapy for lung cancer.

New research discoveries have helped experts identify specific changes that occur during non-small cell lung cancer. Finding these changes allowed them to develop medications that target cancer cells.

Angiogenesis inhibitors

One form of targeted drug therapy focuses on blood vessel development. Cells need blood vessels to provide them with nourishment and oxygen, and angiogenesis inhibitors block the growth of new blood vessels. These medications may help slow the growth of cancer cells by stopping blood vessels from growing around the cancer cells.

Oncologists may prescribe angiogenesis inhibitors in combination with other cancer medications to increase positive outcomes.

Examples of angiogenesis inhibitors for treating non-small cell lung cancer include bevacizumab and ramucirumab.

Side effects

Potential side effects include:

  • bleeding
  • clots in the arteries
  • high blood pressure
  • impaired wound healing
  • a certain brain disorder
  • gastrointestinal perforation and fistulas are rare side effects

Gene changes

Cancer often causes mutations in genes, and researchers have identified several gene mutations common in non-small cell lung cancer and developed drugs to target these changes. Identifying the type of mutations allows healthcare professionals to recommend a more personalized approach to their treatment.

Targeted gene therapy medications focus on the mutated gene to stop and kill cancer cells.


A 2020 study discussed the following different types of targeted therapy for non-small cell lung cancer:

  • KRAS gene
  • EGFR gene
  • ALK gene
  • ROS1 gene
  • BRAF gene
  • RET gene
  • MET gene
  • HER2 gene

Doctors may administer targeted gene therapy through IV or oral pills.

Side effects

Potential side effects of these medications may include:

  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • high blood pressure
  • fatigue
  • skin rashes
  • loss of appetite
  • constipation
  • mouth sores
  • vision changes

Read more about targeted therapy for lung cancer.

Depending on the stage and location of the cancer, doctors may recommend other treatments for managing non-small cell lung cancer. Often, a person’s cancer treatment plan will include a combination of treatments.


Surgery may remove part or all of the lung to remove the affected tissues from the body. Sometimes surgery alone may remove all the cancer cells to treat early-stage lung cancer. However, doctors may recommend other types of treatment before or after surgery to improve its effectiveness.

According to the American Cancer Society, surgery carries the following risks:


Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. This treatment targets specific locations to shrink the tumor size.

Potential side effects of radiation therapy include:

  • fatigue
  • nausea and vomiting
  • skin issues
  • hair loss

The outlook for someone with non-small cell lung cancer depends on the number, size, staging, and locations of the tumors. The person’s risk also depends on whether they have other health problems or risk factors.

Overall, treatment may effectively remove cancer cells in some people, allowing them to go on to live typical, healthy lives.

Non-small lung cancer makes up a large portion of lung cancer cancers. Treatment may include a combination of surgery, radiation, or medications. Medications that doctors use to treat non-small cell lung cancer include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted drug therapy.