Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays (or particles) to kill cancer cells.
Depending on the stage of small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and other factors, radiation therapy is used:
The type of radiation therapy most often used to treat SCLC is called external beam radiation therapy (EBRT). A machine outside the body focuses radiation at the cancer.
Treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation dose is stronger. The procedure itself is painless and each treatment lasts only a few minutes. Most often, radiation treatments as part of the initial treatment for SCLC is given once or twice daily, 5 days a week, for 3 to 7 weeks. Radiation to relieve symptoms and prophylactic cranial radiation are given for shorter periods of time, typically less than 3 weeks.
Newer EBRT techniques have been shown to help doctors treat lung cancers more accurately while lessening the radiation exposure to nearby healthy tissues. These techniques include:
Instead of giving a small dose of radiation each day for several weeks, SBRT uses very focused beams of high-dose radiation given in fewer (usually 1 to 5) treatments. Several beams are aimed at the tumor from different angles. To target the radiation precisely, you are put in a specially designed body frame for each treatment. This reduces the movement of the lung tumor during breathing.
If you are going to get radiation therapy, it’s important to ask your doctor beforehand about the possible side effects so that you know what to expect. Common side effects depend on where the radiation therapy is aimed and can include:
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 may be worse.
Radiation therapy to the chest may damage your lungs, which might cause a cough, problems breathing, and shortness of breath. These usually improve after treatment is over, although sometimes they may not go away completely.
Your esophagus, which is in the middle of your chest, may be exposed to radiation, which could cause a sore throat and trouble swallowing during or shortly after treatment. This might make it hard to eat anything other than soft foods or liquids for a while. This also often improves after treatment is finished.
Radiation therapy to large areas of the brain can sometimes cause memory loss, fatigue, headaches, or trouble thinking. Usually these symptoms are minor compared with those caused by cancer that has spread to the brain, but they can affect your quality of life.
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Hann CL, Wu A, Rekhtman N, Rudin CM. Chapter 49: Small cell and Neuroendocrine Tumors of the Lung. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.
National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Health Professional Version. Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment. 2019. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/lung/hp/small-cell-lung-treatment-pdq on June 12, 2019.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Small Cell Lung Cancer. V.1.2019. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/sclc.pdf on June 12, 2019.
Last Revised: October 1, 2019