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Radiation treatment is the use of high-energy rays (like x-rays) or particles to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. It can be used as part of the main treatment for a lung cancer and to treat cancer spread.

The radiation may come from outside the body (external radiation) or from radioactive seeds placed into or next to the tumor (brachytherapy).

External beam radiation

In this method, radiation is focused from outside the body on the cancer. This is the type of radiation most often used to treat lung cancer or its spread to other organs.

Before your treatments start, careful measurements will be taken to find the best angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose of radiation. Treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation dose is stronger. It does not hurt. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, although the setup time – getting you into place for treatment – usually takes longer. Most often, radiation treatments are given 5 days a week for 5 to 7 weeks, but this depends on why the radiation is being given.

You may hear your doctor talk about newer methods of giving radiation, such as 3D-CRT, IMRT, or stereotactic body radiation therapy. Using these newer methods, doctors are now able to focus the radiation on the tumor much better than they could in the past. This may offer a better chance of success with fewer side effects.

Brachytherapy (internal radiation therapy)

Brachytherapy is sometimes used to shrink tumors to relieve symptoms caused by lung cancer that is blocking an airway. For this type of treatment, the doctor places a small source of radioactive material (often in the form of small pellets) right into the cancer or into the airway next to the cancer. This is usually done through a bronchoscope, although it may also be done during surgery. The pellets are usually removed after a short time. Less often, small radioactive “seeds” are left in place, and the radiation gets weaker over several weeks.

Possible side effects

Side effects of radiation depend on where the radiation is aimed. Some common side effects of radiation to treat lung cancer are:

These often go away after treatment.

Radiation to the chest can cause long-term damage to the lungs and cause a cough and trouble breathing.

For more information about radiation therapy for lung cancer, see Lung Cancer (Non-Small Cell). More general information about radiation therapy can be found in the Radiation Therapy section of our website.

Last Medical Review: 08/18/2014
Last Revised: 02/24/2016