Having radiotherapy for advanced cancer

Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to treat cancer cells. It can shrink the cancer, relieve symptoms, and help you feel more comfortable. But radiotherapy can't cure advanced lung cancer.

When you have it

You might have radiotherapy for advanced lung cancer if:

  • your airway is partly or completely blocked
  • you have pain in your bones
  • your cancer has spread to your brain
  • you are coughing up blood
  • you have chest pain

You might have:

  • 1 treatment only
  • 2 treatments, over 2 weeks
  • treatment each day for 1 week
  • treatment every other day for 2 weeks
  • daily treatment for 2½ weeks

Your specialist will tell you what the best treatment plan is for you. 

The radiotherapy room

Radiotherapy machines are very big and could make you feel nervous when you see them for the first time. The machine might be fixed in one position or able to rotate around your body to give treatment from different directions. The machine doesn't touch you at any point.

Before your first treatment, your therapy radiographers Open a glossary item will explain what you will 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 while you have treatment.

Photo of a linear accelerator

Before your treatment

Your radiographers help you get into position on the treatment couch. You might have a type of firm cushion to help you keep still.

The room is darkened and the radiographers line you up in the radiotherapy machine using laser lights. You will hear them saying measurements to each other to get you in the right position. 

Then they leave you alone in the room for a few minutes.

You might need to raise your arms above your head. This may be difficult if you are very breathless. If it is uncomfortable for you, it is possible to have your arms by your sides.

During the treatment

You need to lie very still on your back. Your radiographers might take images (x-rays or scans) before your treatment to make sure that you're in the right position. The machine makes whirring and beeping sounds. You won’t feel anything when you have the treatment.

Your radiographers can see 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. You can also talk to them through the intercom or raise your hand if you need to stop or if you're uncomfortable.

When the treatment is over the radiographers come back into the room and help you down from the couch.

You won't be radioactive

This type of radiotherapy won't make you radioactive. It's safe to be around other people, including pregnant women and children.

Travelling to radiotherapy appointments

You might have to travel a long way each day for your radiotherapy, depending on where your nearest cancer centre is. This can make you very tired, especially if you have side effects from the treatment.

You can ask the therapy radiographers Open a glossary item for an appointment time to suit you. They will do their best, but some departments might be very busy. Some radiotherapy departments are open from 7am till 9pm.

Car parking can be difficult at hospitals. You can ask the radiotherapy staff if they can give you a hospital parking permit for free parking or advice on discounted parking. They may be able to give you tips on free places to park nearby.

The radiotherapy staff may be able to arrange transport if you have no other way to get to the hospital. Your radiotherapy doctor would have to agree. This is because it is only for people that would struggle using public transport and have no access to a car. 

Some people are able to claim back a refund for healthcare travel costs. This is based on the type of appointment and whether you claim certain benefits. Ask the radiotherapy staff for more information about this.

Some hospitals have their own drivers and local charities might offer hospital transport. So do ask if any help is available in your area.

Side effects

The side effects of radiotherapy for advanced lung cancer usually come on gradually over a few days after the start of treatment. They start to get better a couple of weeks after the treatment has ended.

You are likely to feel very tired during your treatment. It tends to get worse towards the end of your course of treatment. You might also feel weak and lack energy.

After a while you may need to sleep after each radiotherapy session. Rest when you need to.

Tiredness gets better once you finish treatment but it can carry on for a few days or weeks.

Various things can help you to reduce tiredness and cope with it, for example exercise. Some research has shown that taking gentle exercise can give you more energy. It is important to balance exercise with resting.

Let your nurse or doctor know if you feel sick. They can give you medicines to reduce sickness.

If you have pain, a cough or breathlessness, these things might get worse for a while before they get better.

Tell your doctor, nurse or radiographer if your symptoms get worse and they can prescribe medicines to help you.