Treatment for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is usually radiation therapy, especially if the cancer is at an early stage. This involves aiming concentrated radiation at cancer cells to damage their DNA, which can kill the cancer cells or prevent them from growing.

If the cancer has progressed to a later stage, radiation therapy may help prolong a person’s life.

A person should always discuss with a doctor the effect of potentially aggressive treatment on their quality of life.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Although there are several types of lung cancer, NSCLCs make up around 85% of all lung cancers.

Doctors and scientists have developed many treatment options for NSCLC. Research into new types of treatment is ongoing.

This article discusses radiation therapy as a common form of NSCLC treatment, including its types and effectiveness. We also provide tips for coping with radiation therapy side effects.

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Cancer develops when some of the cells in a person’s body grow and divide in an unusual and uncontrolled way. This can lead to the formation of tumors, which are large lumps of organic tissue. When tumors develop within an organ, this may cause organ damage and infection, which can be fatal.

Lung cancer occurs when these cells divide and grow in the lungs. In the later stages of lung cancer, however, the cancerous cells spread around the body. People with untreated lung cancer eventually develop tumors in other organs, such as the brain, liver, or kidneys.

Radiation therapy works by directing high doses of radiation toward cancer cells. When a person receives this therapy over a period of time, the radiation should damage the cancer cells’ DNA. Eventually, this often kills the cancer cells or stops them from multiplying.

Internal vs. external

There are two main kinds of radiation therapy: external and internal.

External radiation therapy is when doctors use a machine to direct radiation into a person’s body from the outside. It works similarly to an X-ray, although it uses much higher doses of radiation.

Internal radiation therapy is when doctors place a source of radiation directly into a person’s body.

The American Cancer Society notes that only some types of radiation therapy are appropriate for NSCLC. Doctors may use these radiation therapies alone or alongside other cancer treatments.

Stereotactic body radiation therapy

Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT), also known as stereotactic ablative radiotherapy, is a form of external radiation therapy. Doctors use SBRT when a person’s health prevents them from undergoing surgery.

Radiation therapy often takes a long time. People typically receive several doses of radiation over days or weeks. However, SBRT works differently by providing fewer but stronger doses of radiation.

This radiation is harmful to healthy cells, too, so doctors need to precisely aim the radiation. An individual who receives SBRT must enter a special body frame for each session. It limits their movements, which makes it less likely that the radiation accidentally damages healthy cells.

A 2014 review of studies concludes that SBRT complications are generally well tolerated.

3D conformal radiation therapy

3D conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT) is a sophisticated form of external radiation therapy.

With 3D-CRT, doctors can use computers to create a precise map of a tumor’s location. They then use this map to point several radiation beams at the cancer while controlling the shapes of the beams.

The beams are coming from different locations, so it is less likely that 3D-CRT will damage healthy tissues.

Intensity-modulated radiation therapy

Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is a different form of external 3D radiation therapy.

As with 3D-CRT, doctors can use IMRT to control the shape and direction of the radiation beams. However, with IMRT, doctors can also control the strength of each beam. This makes IMRT very useful for treating tumors near important body parts, such as the spine.

There is also a version of IMRT called volumetricmodulated arc therapy (VMAT). VMAT allows doctors to deliver radiation doses very quickly, which makes for a faster treatment.

Stereotactic radiosurgery

Despite its name, stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) is not a form of surgery but another type of external radiation therapy. Doctors typically use SRS to treat single brain tumors.

One common version of SRS uses a machine to aim around 200 beams of radiation at the tumor, all from different angles. In a different version of SRS, a machine keeps moving around a person’s head, directing a single beam of radiation toward the tumor.

SRS can take several minutes to several hours. Unlike other forms of external radiation therapy, doctors only recommend one session of SRS per SRS therapy.


Brachytherapy is a type of internal radiation therapy. Doctors use it to shrink the tumors in a person’s airways. This can help relieve the symptoms of NSCLC.

With brachytherapy, a doctor places a small quantity of solid radioactive material near a person’s tumor. Doctors can do so with surgery, although they most often use a flexible tube called a bronchoscope.

With a bronchoscope, doctors can look into a person’s airways using a tiny camera and deposit the radioactive material where needed.

After leaving the radioactive material in the body for some time, doctors often remove it. In some cases, doctors use a weaker radioactive source, which can stay in the body indefinitely.

Many doctors recommend some form of radiation therapy to treat NSCLC. However, the success rate of radiation therapies can depend on the stage of a person’s cancer.

For example, radiation therapy is not particularly useful for treating early stage NSCLC. Doctors only recommend it when a person with early stage NSCLC cannot undergo surgery, or if they have other serious health conditions alongside NSCLC.

Nonetheless, there is evidence that radiation therapy can effectively treat NSCLC. A 2019 study included 288,670 people with NSCLC at all stages of the condition. Researchers report that people who had received radiation therapy had a higher survival rate than those who had not.

A person should consider the different treatment options and their pros and cons with a doctor.

Like many cancer treatments, radiation therapy can have side effects. To manage side effects, a person may wish to consider the following techniques:


People who experience fatigue after radiation therapy can try:

Learn about foods that can help with fatigue here.

Nausea and vomiting

Radiation therapy may cause nausea or vomiting. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the following may help with these side effects:

The NCI especially recommends following these steps on treatment days.

Learn 17 home remedies for nausea and vomiting here.

Skin problems

Radiation therapy can cause mild skin problems. For example, a person may notice dry or peeling skin. The skin may also change color, swell, or develop sores.

The NCI recommends the strategies below to help reduce or treat these problems:

Learn about home remedies for dry skin here.

Hair loss

Radiation therapy can cause hair loss on the part of the body that receives radiation.

To address hair loss, the NCI suggests:

  • treating the hair gently
  • using a mild shampoo
  • protecting the scalp from the sun

Learn how to help treat hair loss here.

Doctors have developed many sophisticated types of radiation therapy for NSCLC, including stereotactic body radiation therapy, 3D conformal radiation therapy, and intensity-modulated radiation therapy.

The success rate of these radiation therapies depends on the stage of cancer. For example, radiation therapy may not be particularly useful for early stage NSCLC. Doctors tend to only recommend it at this stage if surgery isn’t possible.

For other people, radiation therapy can improve the length and quality of life and may even cure some cases of NSCLC.

Side effects of radiation therapy include nausea and vomiting, skin problems, and fatigue. However, a person can reduce the severity of these side effects in several ways. A person with NSCLC can talk with their doctor about ways to manage any side effects.