What Medications Are Prescribed to Treat Lung Cancer?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for approving new medications for the treatment of lung cancer. Typically, drugs are approved to treat a specific type of lung cancer (such as adenocarcinomas). Some medications are only approved for use after other treatments have failed or stopped working (such as chemotherapy).

Overall, the platinum-based chemo medications cisplatin (Platinol®) and carboplatin (Paraplatin®) are the most broadly prescribed drugs in the treatment of lung cancers. Chemotherapy may be used to treat several stages and types of lung cancer. Other commonly used chemotherapy drugs include:

  • Docetaxel (Taxotere®)
  • Gemcitabine (Gemzar®)
  • Nab-paclitaxel (Abraxane)
  • Paclitaxel (Taxol®)
  • Pemetrexed (Alimta®)
  • Vinorelbine (Navelbine®)

Some immunotherapy medications and targeted therapies have recently received approval from the FDA as a second-line lung cancer treatment. Other, new treatment drugs are being studied in clinical trials and may be accepting new patients.

For an up-to-date list of approved lung cancer treatment drugs, visit the National Cancer Institute’s website (some medications or drug combinations used to treat lung cancers may not be listed).

Chemotherapy Medications

Chemotherapy medications may be used to shrink the size of tumors in one area as well as kill cancerous cells throughout the body. Chemo may be prescribed after surgery for patients with stage I or II cancers. For stages III and IV, chemo is often among the first-line therapies in combination with surgery and/or radiation therapy.

Because most people with small cell lung cancer (SCLC) are often diagnosed in its advanced stages, chemo is considered the standard of treatment. Combinations of chemo medications generally used to treat SCLC include:

  • Cisplatin and etoposide (Toposar®, Vepesid®)
  • Carboplatin and etoposide
  • Cisplatin and irinotecan (Camptosar®)
  • Carboplatin and irinotecan

If cisplatin and carboplatin fail to work, the chemotherapy medication lurbinectedin (Zepzelca®) may be prescribed.

For non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), a combination of chemo drugs may be used depending on the cancer’s cell types.

These medications are generally given via intravenous (IV) injection over a few hours in a hospital or outpatient clinic. Multiple rounds of treatment may be prescribed, requiring the patient to attend chemo treatments up to a few days a week, every one to three weeks.

Side effects from chemo medications depend on the amount prescribed and the length of treatment. Common side effects include:

  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Easily bruised
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Increased risk of infections
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mouth sores
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weight loss

Immunotherapy Medications

Immunotherapy medications are a newer form of treatment and may not be offered at every hospital. These medications target certain cancer cells that are able to hide from the immune system. Receiving an immunotherapy prescription depends on the type of cancer cells found in the lungs; not all medications are effective for all lung cancer patients.

Immune therapy drugs can be categorized based on the immune checkpoint inhibitors they target.

PD-1/PD-L1 Inhibitor Medications

Generic Drug Name Brand Name
Atezolizumab Tecentriq®
Durvalumab Imfinzi®
Nivolumab Opdivo®
Pembrolizumab Keytruda®

CTLA-4 Inhibitor Medications

Generic Drug Name Brand Name
Ipilimumab Yervoy®
Tremelimumab none

Immunotherapy medications are given via IV infusion and may be administered every two to six weeks. As the medicine travels throughout the body, it triggers an immune response (similar to feeling like you have the flu). Other side effects of immunotherapy medicine include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Lung inflammation
  • Skin reactions
  • Weight changes

Targeted Therapy Medications

Similar to immunotherapy, targeted therapy is a newer form of cancer therapy, and is still being studied in ongoing clinical trials. Unlike most immune therapy drugs, targeted therapy medications are available to be taken in pill form.

The most common targeted therapy drugs used for lung cancers target certain cancer genes, proteins, or tissues that help tumors grow and spread. Medications work to slow or stop tumor growth, often by cutting off the tumors’ blood supply.

Targeted therapy medications can be categorized according to the inhibitors they employ.

Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR) Inhibitor Medications

Generic Drug Name Brand Name
Afatinib Gilotrif®
Dacomitinib Vizimpro®
Erlotinib Tarceva®
Gefitinib Iressa®
Osimertinib (agrisso®

Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase (ALK) Inhibitor Medications

Generic Drug Name Brand Name
Alectinib Alecensa®
Brigatinib Alunbrig®
Ceritinib Zykadia®
Crizotinib Xalkori®
Lorlatinib Lorbrena®

Bevacizumab (Avastin®, Mvasi®) is an anti-angiogenesis medication that stops the body from making new blood vessels to deliver nutrients to tumors. This targeted therapy drug is usually prescribed in combination with chemotherapy. It may be prescribed in combination with immunotherapy medication atezolizumab (Tecentriq®) for patients with advanced NSCLC.

Due to the risk of bleeding, bevacizumab is not recommended for people with squamous cell carcinomas.

Palliative Medications

Doctors recommend all patients with advanced-stage lung cancers receive some form of palliative care. Often, the complications of lung cancer require palliative surgeries (such as thoracentesis to drain fluid buildup from around the lungs). Chemical pleurodesis may also be used to remove fluid from the chest and fill the cavity with substances (such as talc, antibiotic doxycycline, or chemo drugs like bleomycin) to control the further buildup of fluids.

To treat blocked airways, photodynamic therapy (PDT) is effective against early-stage lung cancers found on the outermost tissues. The treatment injects porfimer sodium (Photofrin®), a light-activated medication, via IV. The drug attaches more strongly to cancer cells than healthy ones. Consequently, when a special laser is inserted into the chest and aimed at the tumors, the cancer’s cells begin to die. After a few days, dead cancer cells are removed during a bronchoscopy procedure.

Opioid pain-relief medication may be prescribed to alleviate soreness and severe discomfort following a surgical procedure. Antidepressants are prescribed to some patients who exhibited signs of declining mental health and/or depression.

Complementary and Alternative Medications

Complementary and alternative medications used to treat lung cancers are wellness methods that are not considered standard medical cancer treatment. Most methods have not been studied in clinical trials or across broad populations for their effectiveness. However, in conjunction with a treatment plan recommended by a doctor, these therapies may offer relief for some patients and their loved ones.

Complementary medication is medicine that may be taken in addition to ongoing treatments, such as:

  • Acupuncture
  • Dietary supplements
  • Hypnosis
  • Massage therapy
  • Meditation

Alternative therapies are intended to replace standard cancer treatments. Examples of alternative medicines include:

  • Herbs and herbal preparations
  • Magnet therapy
  • Megadose vitamins
  • Specialized diets
  • Special teas