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Radiotherapy for lung cancer symptoms

Cancer that has spread to the lungs can cause discomfort. Radiotherapy can be used to relieve some symptoms.

How radiotherapy can help

Cancer that has spread to the lungs can cause symptoms such as:

  • chest pain
  • a cough
  • breathlessness
  • coughing up blood

The treatment helps to shrink the cancer and reduce the symptoms. It might help to keep your cancer under control for longer and make you comfortable, but it can't cure the cancer.

Radiotherapy can work very well for tumours in the lungs. It works whether they are from a cancer that started in the lungs or one that has spread there from somewhere else in the body.

How you have radiotherapy for lung symptoms

You are most likely to have external beam radiotherapy.

External beam radiotherapy

You have radiotherapy as a series of treatment sessions called fractions. You have to go to the radiotherapy department every day but each treatment only takes a few minutes. You have treatment once a day, from Monday to Friday. The exact length of the course depends on your particular situation. The course can last anywhere between 1 day to 2 weeks.

First, you have a specialised CT planning scan so the treatment team can plan exactly where to give the radiotherapy. You might also need to have a plastic mould made to keep you completely still during the treatment sessions.

To have the treatment you lie on a radiotherapy couch. The radiographers help you to get into the right position.

Photo of a linear accelerator
A photograph of a linear accelerator

The staff then leave the room. This is so they are not exposed to the radiation. You are alone for a few minutes. The radiographers watch you carefully on a closed circuit television screen.

You can't feel the radiotherapy. It doesn’t hurt but you might find it uncomfortable to lie in position during the treatment. The radiotherapy couch can be quite hard. You can ask your doctor or specialist nurse if you can take a painkiller half an hour beforehand if you think it might help.

Internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy)

Some people have treatment with internal radiotherapy from inside the airway. You might need this if your tumour is blocking or partly blocking the airway.

Giving radiotherapy treatment in this way is called brachytherapy or endobronchial therapy. Your doctor puts a tube called a bronchoscope into your airway, either through your mouth or nose.

Diagram showing a bronchoscopy

You have a local anaesthetic sprayed into your throat beforehand. The doctor puts a thin tube called a catheter inside the bronchoscope and into your lung. You have a CT scan to make sure the tube has gone to the right area.

The radiographers then connect the catheter to the brachytherapy machine. They leave the room and watch you from outside on a closed circuit television screen. The brachytherapy machine contains a small radioactive metal ball that leaves the machine and travels into the tube. Once it has reached the tumour it releases radiation for a few minutes.

During the treatment you feel nothing and it is painless. When the treatment ends the radioactive metal goes back into the machine. The radiographers come back into the room and remove the tube. You usually have this type of radiotherapy in 1 or 2 sessions.

Results of the treatment

Radiotherapy usually works very well and quickly for lung cancer symptoms. Your symptoms should start to improve within a couple of weeks of starting the treatment.

Side effects

The side effects are usually mild. They tend to come on as you go through your treatment course and may last for a week or two after the treatment has finished.

Side effects may include:

  • feeling tired
  • your skin may go red in the treatment area if you have external radiotherapy
  • feeling sick because the lungs are quite close to the stomach – you can have anti sickness medicines (anti emetics) and it may help to take them 20 minutes before your treatment
Last reviewed: 
14 Mar 2016
  • External Beam Therapy
    Peter Hoskin
    OUP Oxford, 30 Aug 2012

  • De Vita, Hellman, and Rosenberg's Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (9th edition)
    De Vita, V.T., Lawrence, T.S. and Rosenberg S.A.
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011

  • Radiotherapy in practice - Brachytherapy (2nd edition)
    P Hoskin, C Coyle
    Oxford University Press, 2011

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