Doctors may opt for radiation therapy to treat lung cancer. However, it can cause side effects, such as nausea, skin changes, and temporary damage to the chest that causes coughing and shortness of breath.

Radiation therapy can be a very effective treatment for lung cancer, depending on the size and location of the tumor and the extent of cancer.

However, a person should discuss the potential risks and side effects with a doctor before starting treatment.

This article looks at the short- and long-term side effects of radiation for lung cancer, side effects with chemotherapy, managing the side effects, and more.

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The side effects of radiation therapy for lung cancer usually go away within a few months after the end of treatment.

Short-term side effects may include:

The damage radiation therapy for lung cancer causes to the chest may result in longer-lasting side effects. A person may experience coughing and shortness of breath as permanent side effects of the treatment.

Doctors commonly treat cancer that has spread from the lungs to the brain with radiation. Radiation to the brain may result in some long-term side effects, such as headaches, difficulty thinking, seizures, and memory loss.

Another possible long-term side effect of radiation treatment for lung cancer is damage to the esophagus, which may cause difficulty swallowing and pain in the throat. These side effects are most often temporary, however.

In rare instances, radiation therapy to the chest may affect the organs and bones of the chest, although modern radiation techniques have made this unlikely.

Possible long-term side effects of radiation damage to the chest include:

A person may require chemotherapy, as well as radiation therapy, for lung cancer.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can cause some similar side effects, and undergoing both treatments can worsen the severity of the potential side effects of each.

Chemotherapy may cause side effects that include:

If a person experiences side effects of radiation, they will usually begin to feel better within a few months after ending treatment, as the normal cells that the radiation damaged along with the cancer cells begin to heal and regenerate.

Some of the side effects of radiation may feel debilitating. Doctors may be able to prescribe medication to help manage some symptoms, while people may be able to manage others at home.

Management of some side effects may involve:

  • Radiation pneumonitis: If a person develops this inflammatory lung condition, doctors may prescribe medication, such as corticosteroids to reduce inflammation. The condition typically goes away on its own.
  • Nausea: A person may feel nauseous for a while after radiation therapy. It may help to avoid eating before treatment or eating only a bland snack, such as crackers or dry toast.
  • Skin blistering or peeling: A person should avoid tight or irritating clothing and wash with lukewarm water. They should avoid harsh skin products and protect their skin from the sun.
  • Hair loss: Hair lost from radiation therapy usually grows back in the following months. A person should protect the area of hair loss from the sun.
  • Fatigue: Fatigue from radiation therapy may not improve with rest. A person may find they require time off of work or help with day-to-day activities during their recovery from radiation therapy. It may be helpful to arrange help from friends or family before undergoing treatment.

This section answers some frequently asked questions about the side effects of radiation for lung cancer.

What is the success rate of radiation therapy for lung cancer?

Research shows that radiation can control local lung cancer tumors at a rate of up to 95% for at least 3 years after the start of radiation therapy.

What to expect after the first radiation treatment for lung cancer?

After their first radiation treatment, a person may experience early side effects, such as changes to the skin in the area of radiation and fatigue.

How many radiation sessions does someone need for lung cancer?

The number of radiation sessions someone requires will depend on the type and extent of their lung cancer, the type of radiation therapy they receive, and other factors.

Radiation therapy usually consists of five sessions a week for 5–7 weeks.

Some people experience side effects of radiation therapy for lung cancer. A person may experience amplified side effects if they undergo both radiation and chemotherapy.

Short-term side effects include nausea, skin changes, a loss of appetite, coughing, and shortness of breath.

Radiation therapy may also cause some long-term side effects. These can involve permanent damage to the lungs, which can result in long-term shortness of breath and coughing.

A person may also require radiation therapy to the brain if lung cancer has metastasized to that area. This can cause long-term headaches, confusion, memory loss, and other symptoms.

Rarely, a person may develop damage to their heart, lungs, nerves, or bones in the chest, which can result in severe health issues.

However, radiation therapy is generally a safe and effective treatment for lung cancer.