Many lung cancer patients will receive external beam radiation therapy as part of their lung cancer treatment. There are several types of external beam radiation that may be used to treat lung cancer, depending on what type of lung cancer is present (small cell or non-small cell lung cancer), and where the cancer is located.

External Beam Radiation Therapy for Lung Cancer

External beam radiation therapy uses a machine called a linear accelerator (LINAC) to direct high-energy beams from outside of the body into the tumor. This minimizes the effect on any surrounding healthy tissue.

Radiation therapy may be used as the main treatment for your lung cancer, but your physician may also recommend radiation before surgery to shrink the tumor or after surgery to target any remaining cancer cells. Radiation may also be used to reduce chance of the cancer spreading, treat cancer that has already spread, or relieve symptoms of cancer. Radiation therapy can also be used in combination with other treatments, such as chemotherapy or targeted therapy.

What to Expect During Radiation Treatment

External radiation therapy is painless. You will be asked to lie on a treatment table next to the machine, and the radiation therapist will position you correctly. The therapist will leave the room prior to starting the treatment, but you will still be able to speak to them. The machine will move around your body to aim the radiation beam at different angles.

Radiation treatments will be given daily, and usually only last for a few minutes, though each session may take 15-30 minutes to set up the equipment and your position. Treatments may take several weeks to complete, with the exception of Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy, which can be completed in five to seven days.

Types of External Beam Radiation Therapy That May be Used for Lung Cancer Patients

Your cancer care team will determine the appropriate type of radiation therapy for your cancer and your needs. This may include:

  • Stereotactic Body Radiotherapy (SBRT): This is often used to treat early-stage lung cancer, or for tumors that have limited spread to other parts of the body. High doses of carefully focused radiation are aimed directly at tumors from different angles, avoiding healthy tissue. The total dose is usually given in fewer treatments than other forms of radiation therapy.
  • Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT): Computer-generated images are used to deliver high doses of radiation to the tumor while avoid surrounding tissue. This therapy uses beams at multiple angles to shape the radiation dose to the tumor. The higher dose delivered directly to the tumor increases the success rate of the treatment, while the lower dose to surrounding tissue results in fewer side effects.
  • Volumetric Arc Therapy (VMAT): A machine rotates around the body to deliver radiation over the course of a few minutes.
  • Stereotactic Radiosurgery (SRS): This is a type of stereotactic surgery that delivers radiation to the tumor from multiple angles. This is sometimes used instead or along with surgery for single tumors that have spread.
  • 3-Dimensional Conformal Radiation Therapy: Computers are used to map the location of tumor. Then, radiation beams are shaped and directed at the tumor from multiple directions to avoid damaging healthy tissue.

Possible Side Effects of External Lung Cancer Radiation

You may experience side effects following radiation therapy for your lung cancer. Side effects vary depending on where the radiation is aimed, but may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss
  • Skin changes in area being treated
  • Hair loss in the area being treated
  • Cough, problems breathing, or shortness of breath
  • Sore throat, trouble swallowing
  • Memory loss or trouble thinking
  • Headaches

While side effects often go away or improve after treatment is over, they may not go away completely. Please speak to your physician about any concerns you may have about potential side effects.

Radiation Therapy

You have a choice in where you receive treatment for your lung cancer. Maryland Oncology Hematology is conveniently located, giving you the option to receive radiation therapy close to home, without needing to go to the hospital for treatment.