Radiation Therapy for Lung Cancer

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.

Radiation: What to Expect

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.

Page last updated: September 14, 2021

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