Health Encyclopedia


Cancer Care

What to Know About Radiation Therapy for Lung Cancer

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.

Related Items
Wellness Library
  Medical Symptoms You Should Never Ignore
Content Type 134
  How Lifestyle and Medical History Affect Cancer Risk: Facts for Gay and Bisexual Men
  Top 10 Cancers Among Men
  AIDS-Related Malignancies
Content Type 156
  Lung Biopsy Podcast
Nutritional Supplement Advisor
  Green Tea Extract
HealthInk Healthy Tips
  Smoking and Lung Cancer
Drug Reference
  Etoposide, VP-16
Cancer Source
  Lung Cancer Introduction
  Statistics About Lung Cancer
  Am I At Risk for Lung Cancer?
  Can I Get Checked for Lung Cancer Before I Have Symptoms?
  What Are the Symptoms of Lung Cancer?
  How Lung Cancer Spreads
  How Does My Doctor Know I Have Lung Cancer?
  Tests That Help Evaluate Lung Cancer
  Questions to Ask About Treatment for Lung Cancer
  Making the Decision to Have Surgery for Lung Cancer
  Advances in Early Detection of Lung Cancer
  Photodynamic Therapy for Lung Cancer
  Struggling to Breathe: Tips for Managing Dyspnea
  Superior Vena Cava Syndrome
  Do What You Can to Ease Side Effects of Treatment and Symptoms of Lung Cancer
  I’ve Just Been Told I Have Lung Cancer
  How Your Doctor Uses Biopsies to Make a Diagnosis of Lung Cancer
  Stages of Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer
  Stages of Small Cell Lung Cancer
  Can I Survive Lung Cancer? What Is My Prognosis?
  What Can I Do If I’m At Risk for Lung Cancer?
  What Happens During PDT for Lung Cancer
  What to Expect After PDT for Lung Cancer
  What Happens During Surgery for Lung Cancer
  What to Expect After Surgery for Lung Cancer
  Making the Decision to Have Radiation Treatment for Lung Cancer
  What Happens During External Radiation Treatment for Lung Cancer
  Making the Decision to Have Chemotherapy to Treat Lung Cancer
  What to Expect After Chemotherapy for Lung Cancer
Cancer FAQs
  Frequently Asked Questions About Lung Cancer
Disease Management
  Does Having COPD Increase My Risk for Lung Cancer?
Daily News Feed
  Smog Tied to Higher Risk of Lung Cancer, Heart Failure
  FDA Approves New Drug for Advanced Lung Cancer
  Gilotrif Approved for Late-Stage Lung Cancer
  Smokers' Cell Damage Exists Even If Tests Miss It, Study Says
  Homeless Face Hidden Epidemic of Smoking
  Highest-Risk Smokers Benefit Most From CT Scan Screening: Study
  Plain Brown Cigarette Packs May Help Some Smokers Quit: Study
  Menthol May Boost Cigarettes' Addictive Properties: Study
  U.S. Panel Backs Routine Lung CT Scans for Older, Heavy Smokers
  Discovery May Help Pinpoint Risk of Lung Cancer Returning After Surgery
  More Evidence Backs Routine CT Scans for Early Lung Cancer Detection
  Gene Mutation May Help Predict Lung Cancer Survival in Nonsmokers
  Protein Found in Blood Might Help Detect Lung Cancer Sooner: Report
  Could Antidepressant Combat Lethal Lung Cancer?
  Blood Test Shows Promise for Cancer Detection, Study Finds
  Blood Test May Tell If Lung Nodule Is Cancerous or Benign
  Gene Testing May Boost Lung Cancer Survival: Study
  Tobacco Myths Continue Half-Century After Landmark U.S. Report
  Workers Need More Protection From Silica Dust, Report Finds
  Many Lung Cancer Tumors May Prove Harmless, Study Finds
  U.S. Cancer Death Rates Continue to Decline: Report
  U.S. Panel Backs Routine Lung CT Scans for Older, Heavy Smokers
  Experimental Treatment for Rare Soft-Tissue Cancer Shows Promise in Mice
  Big Cigarette Tax Hikes Might Prevent 200 Million Deaths in a Century
  U.S. Cancer Deaths Decline Again: Report
  U.S. Lung Cancer Rates Continue to Drop: CDC
  Progress Against Cancer May Be Greater Than Thought
  Radiation Before Surgery May Improve Survival From Rare Lung Cancer
  Much More Must Be Done to Lower Smoking Rates, Experts Say
  Breath Test May Detect Signs of Lung Cancer: Study
  Could Antioxidants Speed Up Cancer Progression?
  CDC to Launch Latest Graphic Anti-Smoking Campaign
  CVS Caremark to Stop Selling Tobacco Products
  Healthy Adults Shouldn't Take Vitamin E, Beta Carotene: Expert Panel
  Experimental Drug Shows Promise for Drug-Resistant Lung Cancer
  Slight Drop in Rate of Advanced Cancers, CDC Says
  Lung Cancer Diagnosis Takes Toll on Patients' Sex Lives, Experts Say
  Chemo Might Give Certain Lung Cancer Patients an Edge
  Lung Cancer Surgery May Be Safest at High-Volume Hospitals, Study Finds
  Lung Cancer Not on Many Women's Radar: Survey
  Stepped-Up Screening Would Uncover More Lung Cancers, Study Says
  Gene Tests May Improve Lung Cancer Care: Study
  Abnormal Lung Scan May Be 'Teachable Moment' for Smokers
  Viewing E-Cigarette Use May Keep Smokers From Quitting
  1 in 4 Smokers With Gene Defect May Get Lung Cancer
  Experimental Drug May Extend Lung Cancer Survival, Study Suggests
  Breath Test May Spot Lung Cancer
  Tumor-Targeting Agent Attaches to Cancer Cells: Study
  Timing of Day's First Cigarette May Influence Lung Cancer Risk
  Smog Controls Tied to Fewer Lung Disease Deaths in N.C.
  Teens Who Prefer Menthols Are Heavier Smokers: Study
  HIV Patients Less Likely to Get Cancer Treatment: Study
  Possible Advance for Some Late-Stage Lung Cancer Patients
Adult Diseases and Conditions
  Home Page - Respiratory Disorders
  Lung Cancer
Test and Procedures
  Lung Biopsy