Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses high energy rays to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. Doctors may recommend it as either a stand-alone treatment or in combination with surgery, chemotherapy, or both.
This article describes what radiation therapy is, the different types of radiation therapy, and what a person can expect from this treatment.
It also looks at the risks and effectiveness of radiation therapy for lung cancer and lists some of the support services available for people living with lung cancer.
Cells are the basic units of living things. They grow and divide to form new cells and eventually become damaged and die.
Unlike normal cells, cancer cells grow and divide rapidly and uncontrollably. In the case of lung cancer, this process may result in a solid tumor in the lungs.
Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses high energy particles, or rays, to damage and destroy cancer cells. It works by
Radiation therapy also has the same effect on other rapidly dividing noncancerous cells. However, most of these healthy cells eventually recover once a person has completed their therapy.
Radiation therapy is
Doctors may recommend radiation therapy for the following:
- as a stand-alone treatment for lung cancer or in combination with surgery, chemotherapy, or both
- to treat lung cancer that has spread to other parts of the body, such as the brain or bones
- before surgery to shrink the lung tumor so it is easier to operate on and remove
- after surgery to rid the body of any cancer cells surgeons may have been unable to remove
- to relieve symptoms of lung cancer, such as:
There are different types of radiation therapy. The type a person receives depends on various factors, such as the:
- type of lung cancer the person has
- location and size of the tumor
- person’s overall health
According to the
External beam radiation therapy
In EBRT, doctors focus radiation from outside the body onto the cancer cells inside the body. The process of EBRT is similar to receiving an X-ray, but the radiation dose is stronger.
The length of EBRT treatment can vary, but a person usually receives treatment
Doctors may use one of several techniques to administer EBRT. These
- Three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT): This technique uses special computers to map the precise location of the tumor and then target radiation beams at it from multiple directions. This helps reduce the risk of damage to healthy tissues.
- Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): This technique is similar to 3D-CRT. However, IMRT also allows doctors to adjust the strength of the radiation beams to limit damage to nearby healthy cells. Doctors typically use this technique when tumors are close to important structures, such as the spinal cord.
- Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT): Rather than administering small doses of radiation every day over a period of weeks, SBRT involves administering a higher dose of radiation in just one to five sessions. This technique involves placing a person in a special body frame to help prevent the movement of the lung tumor during breathing. Doctors
may recommendSBRT for early stage lung cancers when surgery is not an option.
Internal radiation therapy (IRT), or brachytherapy, typically involves placing small radioactive pellets inside the cancerous tumor. Doctors may place the pellets during a procedure called a bronchoscopy or during open surgery.
With brachytherapy, the radiation travels only a short distance from its source, limiting damage to nearby healthy tissues.
Below is some information on
Before radiation therapy
Before receiving radiation therapy, a person will meet with a radiation oncologist and radiation therapist to discuss their treatment.
People receiving EBRT undergo a procedure called a simulation. During a simulation, the radiation oncologist and radiation therapist place small marks on the skin to define the treatment area for future radiation treatments.
These marks may be temporary ink marks or permanent tattoos. They help guide the radiation beams toward the cancer.
In some cases, radiation technicians may create a mold of the person’s body to help the person maintain the correct position during radiation therapy.
During radiation therapy
The exact procedure for radiation therapy depends on whether a person is receiving EBRT or brachytherapy.
During EBRT, a radiation technician uses a person’s skin markers to correctly position their body on the treatment table. At this time, a person may see colored lights directed at the marks. These help with accurate positioning.
The radiation technician then leaves the room but will be able to see the person through a window or on a television screen. The technician is able to communicate with them via a speaker.
During therapy, the person receiving the treatment must lie still but can breathe normally. They may hear noises from the machine but will not experience any sensations from the radiation.
A person who is about to undergo brachytherapy
The surgeon then uses a catheter to insert the radioactive material into the body. They typically use some type of imaging scan to guide them to the exact location of the tumor, such as:
The surgeon may remove the radioactive material within
After radiation therapy
Radiation therapy is an effective treatment for most lung cancers. However, sometimes lung cancers can come back after successful treatment.
Once radiation therapy is complete, a person requires regular follow-up appointments to check for signs of cancer. In
Some potential signs of lung cancer recurrence include:
- difficulty breathing
- recurring pain
- new swellings or lumps
The above symptoms are not always signs of a cancer recurrence. However, anyone who experiences any of these symptoms after radiation therapy or any other type of cancer treatment should contact their doctor immediately to make a follow-up appointment.
Some people do not experience side effects from radiation therapy. However, some people may experience what medical professionals describe as “early” or “late” side effects.
Early side effects
Early side effects resolve within a
- Fatigue: Tiredness and fatigue from radiation therapy may not improve with rest. A person may require time off work or school while they recover.
- Hair loss: People may experience hair loss at the site of the radiation treatment, but the hair should eventually grow back once the healthy cells have had a chance to recover from the damage. In the meantime, a person can continue to protect the area from the sun.
- Skin changes: People may experience peeling or blistering of the skin at the site of the radiation treatment. The following steps can help avoid further irritating the skin as it heals:
- not wearing tight or irritating clothing
- using mild, fragrance-free cleansing products
- washing only in lukewarm water
- not scrubbing or rubbing the skin when washing or drying
- keeping the area protected from the sun
Late side effects
Late side effects may not develop until
People who receive higher doses of radiation have an increased risk of developing late side effects. People can discuss their individual risks with their oncologist before starting radiation therapy.
According to the
The ACS notes that NSCLCs are less aggressive than SCLCs and are also more common: Whereas NSCLCs account for around 80–85% of lung cancers, SCLCs comprise around 10–15% of lung cancers.
According to a
The effectiveness of radiation therapy for SCLC is less clear, although the
Below are some support services for people living with lung cancer.
American Cancer Society 24/7 Cancer Helpline
- Phone: 800-227-2345
American Lung Association
The American Lung Association support network offers the following for lung cancer survivors and people living with lung cancer:
- a helpline
- a mentoring program
- an online support group
- in-person support groups
- Visit: online support group
- Phone: 800-586-4872
LUNGevity provides resources, support, and information for lung cancer survivors and people living with lung cancer.
- Visit: resources
- Phone: 844-360-5864
Below are some answers to frequently asked questions about radiation therapy for lung cancer.
Does radiation work for lung cancer?
In many cases, radiation therapy is an effective treatment for lung cancer. A person may also require chemotherapy, surgery, or both as part of their overall treatment plan.
How many sessions of radiation are needed for lung cancer?
According to the
However, the intensity of radiation treatments and the number of sessions a person requires depends on several factors, including:
- the type and intensity of radiation therapy the person is receiving
- whether the person is receiving any other cancer treatments, such as surgery or chemotherapy
- the type of lung cancer the person has
- whether the lung cancer has spread and if so, to what extent
Radiation therapy uses high energy rays to damage and destroy cancer cells. It is a common and oftentimes effective treatment for lung cancers. Doctors may use it instead of or in addition to other types of cancer treatment, such as surgery and chemotherapy.
There are two main types of radiation therapy for lung cancer: external beam radiation therapy (EBRT) and brachytherapy.
EBRT involves beaming radiation from outside the body onto the tumor. Brachytherapy involves placing radioactive material inside the tumor.
Some people may experience early side effects of radiation therapy within the weeks or months following treatment. Others may develop late side effects in the years following their treatment.
A person can discuss the potential side effects and risks of radiation therapy with their radiation oncologist.