Radiotherapy for small cell lung cancer

Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to destroy lung cancer cells. You have the treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department. 

When do 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 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

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. 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.

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. This depends 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. Ask the radiotherapy staff if you are able to get free parking or 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

Radiotherapy to the lung can cause side effects. Find out what they are and how to cope with them.

Last reviewed: 
06 Nov 2019
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