Trial suggests chest radiotherapy can benefit certain lung cancer patients

In collaboration with the Press Association

An international clinical trial has added more evidence to the idea that chest radiotherapy can benefit people with an aggressive form of lung cancer.

"It's good to see trial results which seem to be showing an improved outlook for some patients" - Martin Ledwick, Cancer Research UK

According to the study, led by scientists from VU University Medical Centre in Amsterdam, offering the therapy in addition to conventional treatment improves the survival rates of patients with small-cell lung cancer (SCLC) and cuts the risk of the disease recurring by nearly half.

SCLC accounts for around one in eight (13 per cent) of all lung cancers, and patients are often diagnosed after the disease has spread.

The latest study involved a total of 498 adults from 42 health centres in the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway who were responding to their initial chemotherapy treatment.

Participants were then randomly divided into two groups.

The first received standard follow-up treatment including radiotherapy to the head.

The other group received radiotherapy to both the head and chest.

While the percentage of patients still alive a year later was almost the same in both groups, researchers found that only around three in a hundred patients (three per cent) were alive two years after receiving the standard treatment - compared with around thirteen in a hundred (13 per cent) of those also given chest radiotherapy.

One in 14 patients (seven per cent) receiving the standard follow-up treatment survived for six months without their condition getting worse, compared with just under one in four patients (24 per cent) in the group receiving chest treatment.

It was also found that close to half of patients (46 per cent) in the standard follow-up group redeveloped cancer in the chest, compared to just one in five patients (20 per cent) undergoing chest radiotherapy.

Ben Slotman, lead author and Professor of Radiation Oncology at the VU University Medical Centre, said preventative radiotherapy to the head, which is given to prevent cancer spreading to the brain, has helped to improve survival rates for patients with SCLC in recent years.

But he stressed that the outlook for those with extensive disease remains poor, with fewer than one in 20 (less than five per cent) still alive two years after receiving treatment.

Writing in a related comment article on the research, Professors Jan van Meerbeeck and David Ball said that while chest radiotherapy may benefit some patients, further research was needed to work out the best combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.  

“We await the results of a similar US trial,” they wrote.

Martin Ledwick, head information nurse at Cancer Research UK, said: "Small cell lung cancer can be very difficult to treat successfully, so it's good to see trial results which seem to be showing an improved outlook for some patients.

"Cancer Research UK has made lung cancer one of its strategic priorities and is funding research into all aspects of the disease, from new tests that will help detect the disease earlier to more effective and kinder treatments to help more people beat the disease."

The findings of the study have been published in The Lancet and are being presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Radiation Oncology in San Francisco.


  • Slotman, B, et al. (2014). Use of thoracic radiotherapy for extensive stage small-cell lung cancer: a phase 3 randomised controlled trial The Lancet DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(14)61085-0
  • van Meerbeeck, J., & Ball, D. (2014). Small-cell lung cancer: local therapy for a systemic disease? The Lancet DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(14)61252-6