Radiation therapy for lung cancer
Also known as radiotherapy, radiation therapy is the use of targeted radiation to kill or damage cancer cells so they cannot grow, multiply or spread. For lung cancer, the radiation is usually in the form of x-ray beams that come from a machine outside the body. This is called external beam radiation therapy (EBRT) and it can be delivered in different ways.
Learn more about:
- How radiation therapy is given
- Types of external beam radiation therapy
- Having radiation therapy
- Side effects of radiation therapy
- Video: What is radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy may be offered on its own or in combination with surgery or chemotherapy, and may be recommended:
- to treat an early lung cancer if you are unable to have surgery
- to treat locally advanced (stage III) non-small cell lung cancer or stages I–III small cell lung cancer
- after surgery if tests show cancer in the mediastinal lymph nodes, to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back in the mediastinum
- as palliative treatment to improve quality of life by relieving pain or other symptoms.
The radiation oncology team will plan your treatment, explain the treatment schedule and discuss possible side effects.
Radiation therapy can be used for all types of lung cancer, but may be delivered in different ways depending on the type of lung cancer.
|standard external beam radiation therapy (EBRT)||
|hyperfractionated radiation therapy||
During treatment, you will lie on an examination table, and a radiation therapy machine will be aimed at the chest area. A radiation therapist will place you and the machine in the correct position and then leave the room. You will not feel anything during the treatment, but may hear a buzzing sound from the machine. The treatment itself takes only a few minutes, but the full session may last 10–20 minutes.
The side effects of radiation therapy vary depending on the dose of radiation and the number of treatments.
Difficulty swallowing and heartburn
These side effects may occur during the treatment period and continue for up to four weeks after treatment ends. Until they improve, you may need to change to a soft food diet and avoid hot drinks, such as tea and coffee.
The skin on your chest and back may become red or dry, like sunburn. A moisturising cream should be applied to the skin when treatment starts – talk to your medical team about which products they recommend.
Feeling tired is common after radiation therapy. Plan your daily activities so you can rest regularly. It may also help to talk to your family, friends or employer about how they can help you.
Shortness of breath and cough
Radiation therapy may cause inflammation of the lungs, known as radiation pneumonitis. This may cause shortness of breath and/or a cough, sometimes during treatment but more likely one to six months after treatment ends. Radiation pneumonitis is usually temporary and can be treated with steroid (cortisone) tablets.
Side effects can change from one period of radiation therapy to the next and may build up over time. Tell the radiation oncology team about any side effects you have, as most can be managed.
Video: What is radiation therapy?
Dr Henry Marshall, Thoracic Physician, The University of Queensland Thoracic Research Centre, The Prince Charles Hospital, QLD; Dr Naveed Alam, Thoracic Surgeon, St Vincent’s Melbourne and Epworth Richmond Hospitals, VIC; A/Prof Martin Borg, Radiation Oncologist, GenesisCare, SA; Dr Lisa Briggs, Consumer; Kirsten Mooney, Thoracic Cancer Nurse Coordinator, WA Cancer & Palliative Care Network, WA; Claire Mulvihill, Lung Cancer Support Nurse, Lung Foundation Australia; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; A/Prof Nick Pavlakis, President, Australasian Lung Cancer Trials Group, President Elect, Clinical Oncology Society of Australia, and Senior Staff Specialist, Department of Medical Oncology, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
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