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Breathlessness after chest radiotherapy

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page tells you about shortness of breath during and after chest radiotherapy. There is information about

 

Short term effects on the lungs

Radiotherapy to the chest area may cause some inflammation of your lungs. Soon after the treatment, you may develop a dry cough or shortness of breath. This is called acute radiation pneumonitis (pronounced new-mon-eye-tiss). It usually only lasts for a few days or weeks and gradually gets better. Occasionally you might need to breath some oxygen through a mask until your chest gets better.

Remember that it is very important to let your doctor know if you suddenly develop breathlessness or if it suddenly gets much worse. It could be due to a chest infection that could make you very ill and you may need antibiotics. Sudden breathlessness may also be caused by a blood clot in the lung or severe inflammation of the membrane around the lung. These conditions are serious and need treatment straight away.

You need to tell your radiotherapy doctors if you have a heart condition that makes you breathless or if you have a heart pacemaker. Radiotherapy can make heart conditions worse over many years for some people.

 

Longer term effects

After radical radiotherapy to the chest, there is a risk of longer term breathing problems. Radical radiotherapy means a long, intensive course of treatment designed to try to cure your cancer. About 1 in 10 people (10%) develop long term (chronic) radiation pneumonitis. This causes a long term cough and sometimes breathlessness.

These side effects may not happen for many months after your treatment. Over the following years, you may gradually get more breathless.

Let your doctor know if you notice changes in your breathing any time after your radiotherapy. If the breathing changes are caused by radiation pneumonitis you may need some treatment. Your doctor will want to monitor your breathing over a few months to get an idea of whether the lung changes are staying the same or getting worse. 

There is detailed information about coping with breathing problems in the section about coping physically with cancer.

 

Where to get more information

We have detailed information about external radiotherapy and internal radiotherapy in this section. There is also detailed information about the side effects of radiotherapy, including the possible long term side effects.

We have pages about the other side effects of chest radiotherapy, including

You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.

Our general organisations page gives details of people who can provide information about radiotherapy. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. Our cancer and treatments reading list has information about books, leaflets and other resources about radiotherapy treatment.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.

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Updated: 12 May 2014