Radiotherapy (also called radiation treatment) is used as a treatment in many different types of cancers. It uses high-energy X-rays (stronger than those used in a normal X-ray) which are aimed at a tumour site. These strong X-rays are used to kill cancer cells and/or stop them from growing.
In lung cancer, radiotherapy may be used in several different circumstances
- Before surgery to shrink a tumour:
- After surgery to reduce the chances of cancer coming back and to treat cancer that has spread.
- Instead of surgery, if the tumour is too large to operate on or if the general health of the patient makes surgery not a safe option.
- In combination with chemotherapy to treat lung cancer.
- To reduce or relieve symptoms such as coughing and breathlessness, improve quality of life or extend the length of life.
- To target secondary tumours (“metastases” – the term used to describe tumour growths when the cancer has spread to other parts of the body). Radiotherapy to secondary tumours can relieve symptoms such as pain where secondary tumours are found in the bone.
Radiotherapy is done by specialist medical professionals, such as radiation oncologists
or radiation therapists. The area of the body to be targeted is X-rayed or scanned to confirm the exact positioning of the tumour. This site is marked by a special ink on the skin and these marks then become the target point for the radiation treatment to focus on.
The actual radiotherapy treatment generally only takes 10-15 minutes, with the patient positioned comfortably. The length of treatment varies, as the number of radiotherapy sessions is determined by the type and size of the tumour. Special shields are used to protect other parts of the skin from the X-rays, however, some damage to healthy skin cells and tissues may occur.
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Most people having radiation therapy experience some side effects. The type and severity of side effects depends on factors such as the area of the body being treated, the general health status of the patient and the number of radiation treatments. Some common side effects include:
- Skin reactions: Mild sun-burn like reddening of the targeted and surrounding skin.
- Hair loss at the site of radiation exposure e.g. on the chest if a lung is being treated.
- Hair loss on the head will occur if the head is being directly targeted for radiation treatment.
- Nausea may occur, which can be treated with medication and relieved by eating small frequent meals rather than three large meals a day.