Lung Cancer (small cell) Overview

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Treating Lung Cancer - Small Cell TOPICS

Radiation treatment for small cell lung cancer

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:

  • It can be used along with chemotherapy (in limited stage disease) to treat the tumor and lymph nodes in the chest.
  • In limited stage SCLC, it is used on the brain to try to prevent the spread of cancer there.
  • 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. Standard radiation is used less often than in the past. Newer methods such as 3D-CRT and IMRT allow doctors to be more precise in treating SCLC while reducing radiation to nearby healthy tissues.

Possible side effects of radiation treatment

  • Sunburn-like skin problems
  • Hair loss (in the place where the radiation enters the body)
  • Tiredness (fatigue)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss

Radiation can affect the blood-forming cells in the bone marrow. This can cause low blood cell counts, which can lead to:

  • Increased chance of infections (from having too few white bloods)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding (from having too few blood platelets)
  • Fatigue (from having too few red blood cells)

Radiation to the chest can damage your lungs, which might cause a cough, problems breathing, and shortness of breath. If your esophagus, which is in the middle of your chest, is exposed to radiation, it could cause a sore throat and trouble swallowing during treatment. This may make it hard to eat anything other than soft foods or liquids for a while.

Most of these side effects go away after treatment, but some can last a long time. When chemotherapy is given with radiation, the side effects are often worse.

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, please see the “Radiation Therapy” section of our website or our document Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.


Last Medical Review: 09/09/2013
Last Revised: 02/11/2014