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What to Know About Radiation Therapy for Lung Cancer

Radiation therapy is also called radiotherapy. It’s one way to treat lung cancer. It’s most often used with surgery. Or it may be used alone or with chemotherapy. The goal of radiation is to kill cancer cells. It directs strong X-rays at the tumor.

To get this treatment, you see a radiation oncologist. This doctor sets your treatment plan. The plan details what kind of radiation you’ll have and how long the treatment will last.

To help decide on your treatment, your doctor may do some imaging tests. These may include X-rays and computed tomography scans (CT scans). Imaging tests take pictures inside your body. They help show where you need treatment. You may have the same tests after treatment to see how well it worked. Your radiation oncologist can help you know what to expect during and after the treatment.

Some people with small cell lung cancer may have radiation directed at the brain. That’s called prophylactic cranial irradiation (PCI). The goal is to prevent any cancer cells that are too small to be seen with a CT scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) from spreading. It can also treat cells that have spread.

The different ways you can get radiation for lung cancer

Your radiation oncologist maps out your treatment plan. Then, a radiation therapist gives you the radiation. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • External radiation. Radiation can be directed at the tumor from a source outside of your body. This is called external radiation. It’s the most common type of radiation used to treat lung cancer. Radiation is usually directed at the tumor with a machine called a linear accelerator. For tumors in the lungs, you usually get external treatments once a day for five days in a row. You’ll do this for four to seven weeks. Each session takes only a few minutes. You can have it done as an outpatient. That means you don’t need to stay the night in a hospital. You cannot see radiation. It is a painless treatment. Stereotactic radiosurgery is another type of external radiation. It's a way to aim high levels of radiation at a tumor very precisely by targeting it from many different angles. This type of radiation is used most often when lung cancer has spread to the brain. It may also be used to aim radiation at tumors in the lungs for some very early stage cancers.

  • Internal radiation therapy. Radiation can be directed from inside the body at tumors in the airways to help shrink them. The radiation therapist puts small radioactive pellets into or near the tumor. This is less often used for lung cancer. When it is used, one way to put the pellets into your lung is through your windpipe. You will stay in the hospital while the pellets are inside you. You may have nausea as a side effect. It should go away when the pellets are taken out. You may need to stay in the hospital for a few days.

Common side effects after radiation treatment for lung cancer

Radiation affects normal cells as well as cancer cells. That means you may have side effects. They depend on how much radiation you get and where you get it. Here’s a list of effects that people with lung cancer may have after radiation:

  • Fatigue

  • Skin changes

  • Loss of appetite

  • Sore throat and difficulty swallowing

  • Coughing

  • Shortness of breath 

Most of these side effects will go away or get better within a few weeks after your treatment ends.

Ask your doctor which symptoms, if any, require that you call him or her immediately. For instance, it is wise to call your doctor if you have:

  • Sweating

  • Fever

  • Pain

You may feel better during your radiation treatments if you make an extra effort to get plenty of rest and eat healthy meals that are easy to swallow. It is important to try and maintain your weight during treatments for lung cancer.

Online Medical Reviewer: Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Last Review Date: 11/13/2013
© 2013 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.