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a patient receiving radiation therapy

One common treatment for lung cancer is radiation therapy, in which cancerous cells are exposed to high doses of ionizing radiation. This comprehensive resource is designed to provide you with a deeper understanding of how radiation therapy combats lung cancer and what to expect during the treatment process. Explore Moffitt Cancer Center’s commitment to precision and individualized treatment as we detail the steps, side effects and long-term considerations associated with radiation therapy. 

How does radiation therapy work against lung cancer?

Radiation exposure damages cellular DNA, which either prevents the cells from spreading or causes them to die. This type of therapy can be used alone, or it can be combined with other treatments. For instance:

  • Radiation can be given before surgery to shrink a tumor and make it easier to remove.
  • Radiation can be given after surgery to reduce the likelihood of the tumor coming back.
  • Radiation can be combined with chemotherapy for patients who are not good candidates for or choose not to have lung cancer surgery.

Regardless of when radiation therapy is given, it can be delivered through several different methods. Some patients receive external beam radiation therapy (EBRT), in which a radioactive beam is directed at a tumor from a machine located outside the body. Other patients receive brachytherapy, or internal radiotherapy, in which radioactive pellets are implanted inside the body and then removed (or allowed to disintegrate) once the pellets have finished delivering radiation to the lungs.

What should I expect during radiation therapy for lung cancer?

Before you begin radiation therapy, your lung cancer specialist will meet with you to explain what you can expect throughout the treatment process. During a pre-treatment session called a simulation, your treatment team will fully plan your therapy. A simulation session is essentially a walkthrough during which no treatment is actually administered, but all of the details are discussed and finalized.

For example, if you will be receiving EBRT, your radiation therapy simulation will involve several steps:

  • Positioning – Your treatment team will determine whether you will lie on your back, stomach or side during each session. The goal is to find a position that not only will optimize the effectiveness of your treatment, but also will be comfortable enough for you to hold for the required amount of time (approximately 15 to 45 minutes). Supports may be used to help you maintain this position throughout each session.
  • Immobilizing – Because it will be essential for you to remain still during your treatment, you may be asked to use a special immobilization device, such as a foam box that is customized to fit your form.
  • Imaging – After your body is correctly positioned, your treatment team will take a series of computed tomography (CT) scans of your chest. The resulting images will help your radiation oncologist map out the precise area on which to focus the delivery of your treatment.
  • Marking – To ensure that your body is correctly positioned during each treatment session, your treatment team will use a combination of laser lights and marks on your body, such as tiny, freckle-like tattoos that cannot be accidentally washed off or rubbed away.

Once your radiation simulation is complete, your radiation therapy for lung cancer can officially begin. During each treatment session, you’ll lie on a table in the appropriate position using the immobilization device that was created for you during your planning session. The machine will be operated by a trained technician called a radiation therapist, who you’ll be able to communicate with throughout the procedure. Typically, the treatment is painless, although you may hear whirring, buzzing or clicking sounds coming from the machine.

What are the side effects of radiation therapy for lung cancer?

Radiation therapy for lung cancer can be very effective for destroying cancerous cells and shrinking tumors. However, like many other cancer treatments, it can cause side effects. Specifically, when healthy cells are exposed to radiation, they can be damaged in the same way that cancerous cells are, leading to adverse effects at the site of exposure.

Because radiation therapy is a localized treatment, most side effects develop in the treatment area (for lung cancer, that is the chest). Recent research advances and new technology have facilitated highly precise radiation delivery techniques, which can reduce the impact on surrounding healthy tissue and the likelihood of side effects.

That being said, some common side effects of radiation therapy for lung cancer include:

  • General weakness and fatigue
  • Dry, red, itchy or peeling skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swallowing difficulties
  • Sore throat
  • Shoulder stiffness
  • Radiation pneumonitis (coughing, fever and a sensation of fullness in the chest that can occur several weeks or months after radiation therapy)
  • Radiation fibrosis (lung scarring)

How long do the side effects of radiation therapy for lung cancer last?

Typically, many of these side effects (with the exception of radiation pneumonitis) appear shortly after treatment begins, then gradually worsen as treatment progresses. Most can be expected to improve within a few weeks after radiation therapy is completed.

Throughout the course of your radiation therapy for lung cancer, it will be important for you to communicate candidly with your physician. If you experience any unpleasant side effects, there may be options to help you manage them. However, your treatment team will need to understand what you are experiencing in order to help you feel better.

Long-term side effects of radiation therapy for lung cancer

While most side effects of radiation therapy for lung cancer will go away after treatment is over, there are some side effects that may be long term or permanent. These may include:

  • Scarring of the lungs
  • Thickening of the lining of the lungs
  • Inflammation of the lungs
  • Difficulty breathing
  • A decrease in lung function
  • Problems swallowing
  • Heart problems
  • Bone damage
  • Nerve damage
  • Skin changes

Why choose Moffitt Cancer Center for radiation therapy for lung cancer?

Moffitt’s physicians are highly specialized in the treatment of lung cancer, and they take a number of factors into account when developing a patient’s radiation therapy plan. These factors include the size, stage and location of a patient’s tumor, scientific data that has been gathered from other lung cancer patients who received radiation, and other treatments that the patient has received (or will receive in the future). This allows our team to create an effective, evidence-based treatment plan while accounting for individual factors that can influence a patient’s response to common therapies. Ultimately, we strive to provide each patient with the most precise dose of radiation possible, while reducing the amount of radiation exposure sustained by nearby healthy tissues.

No referral is required to schedule an appointment with one of our radiation therapy oncologists. Contact us at 1-888-663-3488 or complete our new patient registration form online to get started.


Long-Term Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

Side Effects of Radiation Therapy | Radiation Effects on Body | American Cancer Society

Survivorship: Late Effects After Radiation for Lung Cancer | OncoLink