Radiotherapy for lung cancer symptoms | Cancer Research UK
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Radiotherapy for lung cancer symptoms

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page is about radiotherapy for symptoms of cancer that has spread to the lungs. There is information about


Why radiotherapy is used

Cancer that has spread to the lungs can cause symptoms such as chest pain, a cough, breathlessness, or coughing up blood. The treatment helps to shrink the cancer and reduce the symptoms. It may 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 will probably have a course of treatment sessions called fractions. You have treatment once a day, from Monday to Friday. The exact length of the course depends on your particular situation but is generally about 2 weeks.

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

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

A photo of a linear accelerator, which gives radiotherapy

Once you are in the right position the staff leave you alone in the room. This is so they are not exposed to the radiation. You will be alone for a few minutes. The radiographers watch you carefully either through a window or on a closed circuit television screen.

You can't feel the radiotherapy. It doesn’t hurt but you may 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.


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. Once the catheter is in the right place in your airway, a radioactive source is put down the catheter. The doctor positions the radioactive source next to the tumour. The source gives the radiation to a small area immediately around it. The doctor leaves it in place for a few minutes. 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.

  • You may feel more tired than before the treatment started
  • Your skin may go red in the treatment area if you have external radiotherapy
  • You may feel sick, because the lungs are quite close to the stomach but it depends on the part of your lung being treated – you can have anti sickness medicines (anti emetics). It may help to take them 20 minutes before your treatment

We have detailed information about the side effects of radiotherapy to the chest.


More information about radiotherapy

We have detailed information about external radiotherapy and internal radiotherapy in this section.

You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.

Our general organisations page gives details of people who can provide information about radiotherapy. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. Our cancer and treatments reading list has information about books, leaflets and other resources about radiotherapy treatment.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.

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Updated: 30 April 2014