Decorative image

Radiotherapy for non small cell lung cancer

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

Radiotherapy means the use of radiation, usually 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 radiotherapy)

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. Some are fixed in one position but others rotate around your body.  

Before you start your course of 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. You usually need to raise your arms above your head.

The room is darkened and the radiographers line you up in the radiotherapy machine using laser lights and the marks on your skin. You will hear them saying measurements to each other to get you in the right position.

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 can see you and hear you on a CCTV screen in the next room. They can talk to you over an intercom and might ask you to hold your breath or take shallow breaths at times. They will ask you to raise your hand if you need anything but it is important to stay as still as possible. 

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, including pregnant women and children.

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.

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

If you have no other way to get to the hospital, the radiotherapy staff might be able to arrange transport for you. But it might not always be at convenient times. Some hospitals have their own drivers or can arrange ambulances. Some charities offer hospital transport.

Side effects

Radiotherapy to the lung can cause side effects. Find out what they are and how to cope with them.

Last reviewed: 
14 Sep 2017
  • Lung cancer: diagnosis and management
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 2011

  • Management of lung cancer
    Scottish Intercollegiate Guideline Network, 2014

  • A critical review of recent developments in radiotherapy for non-small cell lung cancer
    S Baker and others
    Radiation Oncology, 2016. 11:115

  • Hypofractionated Intensity-Modulated Radiotherapy for Patients With Non-Small-Cell Lung Cancer
    E Pollom and others
    Clinical Lung Cancer, 2016 Nov;17(6):588-594

  • Radiotherapy dose fractionation, second edition
    Royal College of Radiologists, 2016

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.