Having 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 you might 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 have the radiotherapy during the first two cycles of chemotherapy.

Radiotherapy can also be given after chemotherapy if you are not well enough to have chemoradiotherapy but your cancer has responded to chemotherapy. This is called sequential radiotherapy.

You might have radiotherapy:

  • each day for up to 7 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.

You might have radiotherapy to the chest (thorax) if your cancer responded to chemotherapy.

You might also have radiotherapy to control your lung cancer for some time and to relieve symptoms. 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.

You usually have radiotherapy to the brain if your cancer has responded to chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

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 it might 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 each treatment session

The radiographers help you to get onto the treatment couch. You might need to raise your arms over your head.

The radiographers line up the radiotherapy machine using the marks on your body. Once you are in the right position, they leave the room.

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 7 am till 9 pm.

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.

Hospital transport may be available if you have no other way to get to the hospital. But it might not always be at convenient times. It is usually for people who struggle to use public transport or have any other illnesses or disabilities. You might need to arrange hospital transport yourself.

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 and hospital transport.

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.

  • Lung cancer: diagnosis and management

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 2019 (updated 22 September 2022)

  • Management of lung cancer
    Scottish Intercollegiate Guideline Network, 2014

  • Small cell lung cancer

    BMJ Best Practice

    Accessed February 2023

  • Lung cancer: current therapies and new targeted treatments

    F Hirsch and others

    The Lancet, 2017. Volume 389, Pages: 299 - 311

  • Radiotherapy dose fractionation, second edition
    Royal College of Radiologists, 2016

Last reviewed: 
06 Feb 2023
Next review due: 
06 Feb 2026

Related links