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Radiotherapy for lung cancer symptoms

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page is about radiotherapy for symptoms of cancer that has spread to the lungs. There is information about


Why radiotherapy is used

Cancer that has spread to the lungs can cause symptoms such as chest pain, a cough, breathlessness, or coughing up blood. The treatment helps to shrink the cancer and reduce the symptoms. It may help to keep your cancer under control for longer and make you comfortable, but it can't cure the cancer.

Radiotherapy can work very well for tumours in the lungs. It works whether they are from a cancer that started in the lungs or one that has spread there from somewhere else in the body.


How you have treatment

You are most likely to have external beam radiotherapy. You will probably have a course of treatment sessions called fractions. You have treatment once a day, from Monday to Friday. The exact length of the course depends on your particular situation but is generally about 2 weeks.

Some people have treatment with internal radiotherapy from inside the airway. You might need this if your tumour is blocking or partly blocking the airway. Giving radiotherapy treatment in this way is called brachytherapy or endobronchial therapy. Your doctor puts a tube called a bronchoscope into your airway, either through your mouth or nose.

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You have a local anaesthetic into your throat beforehand. The doctor puts a thin tube called a catheter inside the bronchoscope and into your lung. Once the catheter is in the right place in your airway, a radioactive source is put down the catheter. The doctor positions the radioactive source next to the tumour, where it gives the radiation to a small area immediately around it. The doctor leaves it in place for a few minutes. You usually have this type of radiotherapy in 1 or 2 sessions.


Results of the treatment

Radiotherapy usually works very well and quickly for lung cancer symptoms. Your symptoms should start to improve within a couple of weeks of starting the treatment.


Side effects

The side effects are usually mild. You may feel more tired than before the treatment started. Your skin may go red in the treatment area if you have external radiotherapy.

You may feel sick, because the lungs are quite close to the stomach. This depends on the part of your lung being treated. To help control sickness, your doctor or nurse can give you anti sickness medicines (anti emetics). You may find that taking an anti sickness tablet an hour before your treatment helps.

The side effects tend to come on as you go through your treatment course and may last for a week or two after the treatment has finished.

There is detailed information about the side effects of radiotherapy to the chest in the radiotherapy section.

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Updated: 3 July 2012