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.

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How radiation therapy is given

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.

Types of external beam radiation therapy

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)

  • This is usually given every weekday over several weeks.
  • A curative course may involve a series of 20–33 treatments over 4–5 weeks.
  • Palliative radiation therapy usually involves 1–2 treatments.

stereotactic body
radiation therapy


  • This is a way of giving highly focused radiation therapy to small non-small cell lung cancer tumours, while the surrounding tissue receives a low dose. It is delivered from multiple beams that meet at the tumour.
  • SBRT often involves four treatment sessions over a couple of weeks.
  • This type of radiation therapy is only suitable for tumours that are not close to major airways, blood vessels or the spinal cord.

hyperfractionated radiation therapy

  • This means having a slightly higher dose of radiation therapy each day so that the entire course is delivered over a shorter period of time.
  • The total dose of radiation is roughly the same as the total dose you would have for standard radiation therapy.
  • Hyperfractionated radiation therapy is mostly used for small cell lung cancer.

concurrent chemoradiation

  • This means having chemotherapy and radiation therapy at the same time.

Having 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.

Side effects of radiation therapy

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.

Skin changes 

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.

For more on this, see Radiation therapy and listen to our podcast on Managing cancer fatigue.

Video: What is radiation therapy?

Watch this short video to learn more about radiation therapy.

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EPUB files can’t be read on the Amazon Kindle™. However, like most eReaders, Kindle™ 2nd Generation devices are able to display PDFs. We recommend that you download the PDF version of this booklet if you would like to read it on a Kindle™.
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Kindle also provides a Kindle Personal Documents Service that allows users to send documents as an attachment directly to your eReader. For more information on this service, visit http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/ref=help_search_1-1?ie=UTF8&nodeId=200767340&qid=1395967989&sr=1-1
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This information was last reviewed in November 2018
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Cancer information

What is radiation therapy?
Key questions about radiation therapy as part of cancer treatment.

Cancer treatments: a video resource
A short video about surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.