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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 means the use of radiation, usually 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 the 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. 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

  • 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

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

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