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Radiation therapy is treatment with high-energy rays (like x-rays) to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. The radiation comes from outside the body (external radiation). In small cell lung cancer (SCLC) it can be used in different ways:

  • Radiation to the chest can be used along with chemotherapy to treat limited stage disease. Less often, it is used after chemotherapy is done.
  • Radiation to the brain can be done to try to prevent problems from cancer that may have spread there but is too small to be seen on imaging tests. This is most often used if you have limited stage disease.
  • Radiation can also be used to relieve symptoms such as pain, bleeding, trouble swallowing, or problems caused by the cancer spreading to the brain.

Treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is more intense. The procedure itself is painless. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, although the setup time – getting you into place for treatment – takes longer. Most often, radiation treatments are given once or twice a day, 5 days a week for several weeks. Radiation to relieve symptoms or to prevent spread to the brain is given for shorter periods of time.

Possible side effects of radiation treatment

Side effects of radiation depend on where the radiation is aimed. Some common side effects of radiation to treat lung cancer are:

  • Skin problems ranging from redness to blistering and peeling
  • Hair loss (in the place where the radiation enters the body)
  • Tiredness (fatigue)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pain with swallowing and weight loss

These often go away after treatment. When chemotherapy is given with radiation, side effects such as nausea and tiredness are often worse.

Radiation can affect the blood-forming cells in the bone marrow, leading to low blood cell counts. Problems with low blood counts are more common if chemotherapy is given with radiation. These problems can lead to holding the treatment for a time.

Radiation to the chest can cause long-term damage to the lungs and cause a cough and trouble breathing.

Side effects of radiation therapy to the brain usually become most serious 1 or 2 years after treatment. These could include memory loss, headaches, trouble with thinking, and less sexual desire. These side effects, though, are usually minor compared to those caused by lung cancer tumors that have spread to the brain.

For more information about how radiation therapy can be used to treat small cell lung cancer, see our document Lung Cancer (Small Cell).

For more information about radiation therapy in general, please see the “Radiation Therapy” section of our website or our document Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

Last Medical Review: 09/09/2014
Last Revised: 01/19/2016