Radiation Therapy for Lung Cancer

Radiation is a type of lung cancer treatment designed to only target cancer cells and not affect other parts of the body.

Lung cancer radiation therapy uses powerful, high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. Radiation may come from outside the body (external) or from radioactive materials placed directly inside the lung cancer tumor (internal/implant). External radiation is used most often. The radiation is aimed at the lung cancer tumor and kills the cancer cells only in that area of the lungs.

What to Expect

Lung cancer treatment can be stressful. Knowing what to expect from radiation can help ease that stress.

Speaker 1: When facing lung cancer, your doctor might recommend radiation. Knowing what to expect can help ease some of the anxiety that comes with cancer treatment. Every person's journey is different. So be sure to speak with your doctor if you have any questions.

Before radiation. Your first radiation session is a simulation and does not involve treatment. The team will position your body and use imaging scans to help direct the radiation beam. The tumor's location may be marked on your scan with a small temporary marking. You may be fitted for an immobilizer which will help you stay in the same position each treatment.

After the simulation, your team will design a treatment plan. Ask your doctor about any possible side effects and a plan to help manage them. During radiation. Radiation is designed to only target cancer cells and not affect other parts of the body. Two main types of radiation are used for lung cancer. External beam radiation comes from a machine located outside the body. Treatments are usually short and painless, and given about five times a week. Though each person's overall experience may vary.

Internal radiation therapy or Brachytherapy is when radioactive sources are placed in or near the tumor, which may mean a short hospital stay. Remember eat enough calories and protein. Your body uses a lot of energy to heal during radiation. And get plenty of rest. After radiation. Some side effects may occur. Skin blistering or dryness, sore throat, trouble swallowing, coughing and shortness of breath are all common.

Most side effects go away within two months but late side effects may occur. Your doctor can prescribe medication with therapies to help with these side effects. Once you finish radiation, you will likely need check ups. At first, these may happen every few months, then annually for several years. Every person's recovery time and experience is different but focusing on one's well being is important for every person going through treatment. That includes getting the supportive care you need to help you with your recovery, leaning on others for support so you can rest, and keeping in touch with your doctor throughout the process.

Knowledge is power. By being proactive during your treatment, you put the power in your own hands. The American Lung Association is solely responsible for content.

Key Points

  • There are different types of radiation for lung cancer. All types kill cancer cells or stop them from growing.
  • Sometimes radiation is used to relieve lung cancer symptoms.
  • Prepare for radiation by learning what you can expect and using this worksheet to stay organized.

Radiation can be used before lung cancer surgery to shrink the tumor or after surgery to kill any cancer cells left in the lungs. Sometimes external radiation is used as the main type of lung cancer treatment. This is often the case for people who may not be healthy enough to have surgery or whose cancer has spread too far to have surgery. Radiation therapy for lung cancer also can be used to relieve symptoms caused by the cancer, such as pain, bleeding or blockage of airways by the tumor.

Sometimes patients with small cell lung cancer (SCLC) will get radiation to the brain. This helps to lower the chances of the lung cancer spreading to the brain, which is common in SCLC. This is called prophylactic cranial irradiation.

Doctors use several different radiation techniques to administer therapy.

Radiation Techniques for Lung Cancer

Doses of radiation are aimed at lungs or surrounding areas.

Radiation beams are shaped to match the tumor. The intensity of the treatment can be changed throughout the session.

Sealed radioactive material is placed directly into or near the tumor.

Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy (SBRT), also known as Stereotactic Ablative Radiotherapy (SABR) uses a very high dose of radiation delivered very accurately to tumors in the lung or other organs while limiting the dose to the surrounding organs.

Uses a very high dose of radiation delivered very accurately to lung cancer tumors that have spread to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord).

Possible Side Effects of Radiation

  • Mild skin reactions
  • Nausea
  • Tiredness
  • Sore throat
  • Painful swallowing
  • Cough

*Side effects vary based on where the radiation field is located

Discuss concerns, possible side effects and any effects that you experience with your doctor. Download a list of suggested questions.


Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: October 22, 2021

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