Radiotherapy for lung cancer symptoms

Cancer that has spread to the lungs can cause symptoms such as:

  • chest pain
  • a cough
  • breathlessness
  • coughing up blood

Radiotherapy can help to shrink the cancer. It might help to keep your cancer under control for longer and make you comfortable, but unfortunately it can't cure the cancer.

How you have radiotherapy for lung symptoms

You are most likely to have external beam radiotherapy. This means radiation beams are aimed at the cancer from outside your body.

External beam radiotherapy

Before you have treatment you have a specialised CT planning scan. The treatment team use this to plan exactly where to give the radiotherapy. You might also need to have a plastic mould made to keep you completely still during the treatment sessions.

Your doctor tells you how many radiotherapy appointments you'll have. This can vary from person to person but might range from 5 to 10 treatments over the course of 2 weeks. Each treatment is called a fraction. You usually go to the radiotherapy department once a day from Monday to Friday.

To have the treatment you lie on a radiotherapy couch. The therapeutic radiographers help you to get into the right position.

Photo of a linear accelerator

They then leave the room. This is so they are not exposed to radiation. You are alone for a few minutes while you have the treatment. But they can see and hear you the whole time.

You can't feel the radiotherapy. It doesn’t hurt but you might find it uncomfortable to lie in position during the treatment as the radiotherapy couch can be quite hard. You can ask your doctor or specialist nurse if you can take a painkiller half an hour beforehand if you think it might help.

Brachytherapy (radioactive implant)

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 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. They might spray your throat with local anaesthetic beforehand to numb it.

Diagram showing how you have internal radiotherapy for lung cancer.png

Your doctor puts a thin tube called a catheter inside the bronchoscope and into your lung. You have a CT scan to make sure the tube is in the right area.

The radiographers then connect the catheter to the brachytherapy machine. They leave the room, but can see and hear you the whole time. The brachytherapy machine contains a small radioactive metal ball that leaves the machine and travels into the catheter to where the cancer is.

You don’t feel anything during the treatment. It is painless. After several minutes, the treatment finishes and the radioactive metal goes back into the machine. Your radiographers go back into the room and remove the catheter. You usually have this type of radiotherapy in 1 or 2 sessions.

Side effects

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

Side effects may include:

  • feeling tired
  • skin redness in the treatment area if you have external radiotherapy
  • feeling sick because the lungs are quite close to the stomach – you can have anti sickness medicines (anti emetics). It may help to take them 20 minutes before your treatment
  • External Beam Therapy (2nd edition) 
    Peter Hoskin
    Oxford University Press, 2012

  • Devita, Hellman and Rosenberg's Cancer Principles and Practice of Oncology (11th edition)
    VT Devita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg
    Wolters Kluwer Health, 2019

  • Radiotherapy in practice - Brachytherapy (2nd edition)
    P Hoskin and C Coyle
    Oxford University Press, 2011

Last reviewed: 
09 Nov 2019
Next review due: 
09 Nov 2023

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