Lung Cancer (non-small cell) Overview

+ -Text Size

Treating Lung Cancer - Non-Small Cell TOPICS

Radiation treatment after non-small cell lung cancer

Radiation treatment is the use of high-energy rays (like x-rays) to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. 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.

When is radiation therapy used?

Radiation is sometimes used:

  • As the main treatment of lung cancer (sometimes along with chemotherapy). It might be used if a tumor can’t be removed with surgery or if a person is not healthy enough to have surgery.
  • After surgery to try to kill small areas of cancer that can’t be seen and removed during surgery.
  • Before surgery (usually along with chemotherapy) to try to shrink a lung tumor to make it easier to operate on.
  • To relieve symptoms such as pain, bleeding, trouble swallowing, or problems caused by the cancer spreading to other organs such as the brain.

Possible side effects

Side effects of radiation depend on where the radiation is aimed and can include:

  • Skin problems and hair loss where the radiation is aimed
  • Feeling tired
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss

These often go away after treatment.

Radiation to the chest can damage the lungs and cause a cough and trouble breathing. Your esophagus, which is in the middle of your chest, may be exposed to radiation, which could cause a sore throat and trouble swallowing during treatment. This might make it hard to eat anything other than soft foods or liquids for a while.

Side effects of radiation therapy to the brain usually become most serious 1 or 2 years after treatment. These could include memory loss, headaches, trouble with thinking, and less sexual desire. These side effects, though, are usually minor compared to those caused by lung cancer that has spread to the brain.

For more information, please see the “Radiation Therapy” section of our website or our document Understanding Radiation Therapy.


Last Medical Review: 09/05/2013
Last Revised: 02/11/2014