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Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to kill cancer cells.
Depending on the stage of the non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and other factors, radiation therapy might be used:
Different types of radiation therapy can be used to treat NSCLC. There are 2 main types:
External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) focuses radiation from outside the body onto the cancer. This is the type of radiation therapy most often used to treat NSCLC or its spread to other organs.
Treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation dose is stronger. The procedure itself is painless and each treatment lasts only a few minutes. Most often, radiation treatments to the lungs are given 5 days a week for 5 to 7 weeks, but this can vary based on the type of EBRT and the reason it’s being given.
Newer EBRT techniques have been shown to help doctors treat lung cancers more accurately while lowering the radiation exposure to nearby healthy tissues. These include:
Instead of giving a small dose of radiation each day for several weeks, SBRT uses very focused beams of high-dose radiation given in fewer (usually 1 to 5) treatments. Several beams are aimed at the tumor from different angles. To target the radiation precisely, you are put in a specially designed body frame for each treatment. This reduces the movement of the lung tumor during breathing.
A variation of IMRT is called volumetric modulated arc therapy (VMAT). It uses a machine that delivers radiation quickly as it rotates once around the body. This allows each treatment to be given over just a few minutes.
For more detailed descriptions of these procedures, see External Beam Radiation Therapy.
In people with NSCLC, brachytherapy is sometimes used to shrink tumors in the airway to relieve symptoms.
The doctor places a small source of radioactive material (often in the form of small pellets) directly into the cancer or into the airway next to the cancer. This is usually done through a bronchoscope, but it may also be done during surgery. The radiation travels only a short distance from the source, limiting the effects on surrounding healthy tissues. The radiation source is usually removed after a short time. Less often, small radioactive “seeds” are left in place permanently, and the radiation gets weaker over several weeks.
If you are going to get radiation therapy, it’s important to ask your doctor about the possible side effects so you know what to expect. Common side effects depend on where the radiation is aimed and can include:
Often these go away after treatment. When radiation is given with chemotherapy, the side effects may be worse.
Radiation therapy to the chest may damage your lungs and cause a cough, problems breathing, and shortness of breath. These usually improve after treatment is over, although sometimes they may not go away completely.
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. This also often improves after treatment is finished.
Radiation therapy to large areas of the brain can sometimes cause memory loss, headaches, or trouble thinking. Usually these symptoms are minor compared with those caused by cancer that has spread to the brain, but they can affect your quality of life.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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Chiang A, Detterbeck FC, Stewart T, Decker RH, Tanoue L. Chapter 48: Non-small cell lung cancer. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.
National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Patient Version. Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment. 2019. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/lung/patient/non-small-cell-lung-treatment-pdq on June 6, 2019.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. V.4.2019. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/nscl.pdf on June 6, 2019.
Parashar B, Arora S, Wernicke AG. Radiation therapy for early stage lung cancer. Semin Intervent Radiol. 2013;30(2):185–190.
Last Revised: October 1, 2019