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Radiotherapy for non small cell lung cancer

Find out about having external radiotherapy to the lung for non small cell lung cancer.

Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to kill cancer cells.

When you have radiotherapy

Radiotherapy on its own

You might have radiotherapy on its own for stage 1, 2, or 3 non small cell lung cancer if you can’t have surgery because:

  • you have other medical conditions such as heart or lung disease
  • you have a stage 3 cancer that is close to your heart
  • your cancer is hard to reach with surgery

You might have the radiotherapy in either of the following ways:

  • daily for 4 to 7 weeks with breaks at weekends
  • 3 times a day for 12 days with no weekend break (called CHART – continuous hyperfractionated accelerated radio therapy)

For a small cancer on the outer part of the lung you might have stereotactic radiotherapy treatment. You usually have it 3 to 8 times over 2 to 3 weeks.

Radiotherapy after surgery

You might have radiotherapy after surgery if your surgeon couldn’t completely remove your cancer or if it has spread to lymph nodes in the centre of your chest.

Radiotherapy after chemotherapy

You may have radiotherapy after chemotherapy for stage 2 or 3 non small cell lung cancer. This is called sequential radiotherapy.

Radiotherapy and chemotherapy (concurrent chemoradiotherapy)

You might have radiotherapy at the same time as chemotherapy for stage 2 or 3 non small cell lung cancer. Having both treatments at the same time can increase side effects. You need to be fit and well to have this treatment and might have it as part of a clinical trial.

Radiotherapy to control symptoms

You might have radiotherapy for non small cell lung cancer that has spread to other parts of your body (stage 4). This is called advanced lung cancer.

The radiotherapy room

Radiotherapy machines are very big and can be daunting at first. Some are fixed in one position, but others rotate around your body.  

Before you start treatment your radiographers explain what you'll see and hear. In some departments the treatment rooms have docks for you to plug in music players. So you can listen to your own music.

Photo of a linear accelerator

The radiographers help you to get into position on the treatment couch. They fit your radiotherapy mould (shell) if you need one to keep you still during the treatment session.

They line up the radiotherapy machine, using marks on the shell or on your skin.

You usually need to raise your arms above your head.

Then the radiographers leave you alone in the room for a few minutes.

During the treatment

You need to lie very still. The machine makes whirring and beeping sounds. You can't feel the radiotherapy when you have the treatment. 

Your radiographers watch and listen to you on a CCTV screen in the next room. They might ask you to hold your breath or take shallow breaths at times. Tell them if you need to move or want the machine to stop.

You won't be radioactive

External radiotherapy doesn't make you radioactive. It's safe to be with other people throughout your course of treatment.

Travelling to radiotherapy appointments

Tell the radiotherapy department staff if you prefer treatment at a particular time of day. They can try to arrange this.

Radiotherapy can make you tired, especially if you have a long journey. You could ask a family member or friend to drive you to the hospital a couple of times a week. 

Car parking can be difficult at hospitals. It’s worth asking the radiotherapy unit staff:

  • if they can give you a hospital parking permit
  • about discounted parking rates
  • where you can get help with travel fares
  • for tips on free places to park nearby

The radiotherapy staff can usually help to arrange transport for you if you need it. Some hospitals have their own drivers or can arrange ambulances. Some charities offer hospital transport.

Radiotherapy for lung cancer can make you:

  • tired and weak
  • feel sick
  • have a sore mouth or throat
  • have difficulty or soreness on swallowing
  • cough
  • lose your neck or chest hair
  • have chest pain

Information and help

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About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.