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Radiotherapy for small cell lung cancer

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

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

When you have radiotherapy

Limited stage disease

You might have radiotherapy with chemotherapy if your cancer is only in one side of your lung. This is called concurrent chemoradiotherapy or chemoradiotherapy. 

You usually start the radiotherapy around the second cycle of chemotherapy. But if the tumour is larger you might start the radiotherapy with later cycles of chemotherapy.

Radiotherapy can also be given after chemotherapy if the cancer has shrunk or disappeared. It aims to stop cancer coming back.

You might have radiotherapy:

  • each day for 3 to 6 weeks (with a break at weekends)
  • twice a day for 3 weeks

Extensive stage disease

Extensive disease means the cancer has spread to other parts of your body. Radiotherapy can’t cure your lung cancer but it can help to control it for some time. This is called palliative radiotherapy.

Radiotherapy to your brain

Small cell lung cancer can spread to the brain. Your doctor might suggest that you have radiotherapy to the brain to reduce the risk of cancer spreading there. This is called prophylactic cranial irradiation.

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
Last reviewed: 
03 Feb 2017
  • Lung cancer: diagnosis and management
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), January 2014

  • Management of lung cancer
    Scottish Intercollegiate Guideline Network, February 2014

  • Small-cell lung cancer (SCLC): ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up
    M Fruh and others
    Annals of oncology, 2013, Vol 24, Supplement 6, 99-105

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