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Radiotherapy for Lung Cancer

June 10, 2008 - 7:30am
 
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This page discusses the use of radiation therapy for the treatment of lung cancer. For a thorough review of radiation therapy for cancer treatment, please see the radiation therapy treatment monograph .

Radiation therapy is the use of penetrating beams of high-energy waves or streams of particles called radiation to treat disease. Radiation therapy destroys the ability of cancer cells to grow and divide.

Indications for Radiation Therapy

Radiation may be ordered to treat the cancer or control symptoms. For instance, radiation may be used to kill cancer cells not visible during surgery or to decrease the size of a tumor blocking an airway or causing pain.

Radiation therapy, like chemotherapy, can be given to treat the initial cancer in the lung or to treat the cancer that has spread beyond the lung.

Radiation is often considered as a main treatment for stage I or II non-small cell lung cancer when patients are not healthy enough to undergo surgery or refuse surgery. It also becomes a primary treatment when the tumor cannot be removed surgically due to its size or location.

When used with surgery for patients with Stage II or III non-small cell lung cancer, radiation may be started as soon as two weeks after surgery.

Type of Radiation Therapy Used for Lung Cancer

External Radiation Therapy

In external radiation therapy, rays are directed at the tumor from outside the body. External radiation therapy is the most common form of radiation therapy used to treat lung cancer. Once the cancer has spread beyond the chest, radiation is no longer curative but the treatments can be helpful to minimize symptoms, including pain, bleeding, cough, or weakness.

Most external radiation therapy treatments last from two to eight weeks, and are given once a day, five days per week. The daily time spent receiving the external therapy is short.

Internal Radiation Therapy

Internal radiation therapy, also called brachytherapy, places the radiation source as close as possible to the cancer cells. Radioactive material, sealed in a thin wire, catheter, or tube, is placed directly into the affected tissue. Using this method concentrates the radiation on the cancer cells and minimizes the radiation damage to the normal tissue nearby. Internal radiation therapy may be used to shrink tumors and thereby, reopen airway blockages.

Effectiveness of Radiation Therapy

Studies show that radiation alone can cure patients with Stage I and II non-small cell lung cancer. Escalated doses of radiation seem more effective than lower doses. Radiation after surgery did not improve survival rates over surgery alone for patients with Stage I or II non-small cell lung cancer.

The quality of the radiation delivery can affect its effectiveness. Chemotherapy combined with radiation has modestly improved outcomes for patients with Stage III non-small cell lung cancer.

Side Effects and Possible Complications

Side effects can also be seen long term (for many months to years after the therapy), and are generally associated with how much of your lung was treated with radiation therapy, and how high a dose was delivered. Ask your radiation oncologist how likely it is that you will develop a long-term breathing problem from the radiation therapy. Side effects may include:

  • Mild to moderate cough
  • Mild to moderate shortness of breath
  • Difficulty swallowing

Contact your health care provider if you experience any of the following:

  • Side effects from the treatment, such as mild skin problems, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue
  • New or unusual symptoms
  • Red, blistered, or swollen skin

For more information on radiation therapy, including side effects and how to manage them, please see the radiation therapy treatment monograph.

Sources:

American Cancer Society

American Lung Association

Bast R. Cancer Medicine e5 . Hamilton, Ontario: B.C. Decker Inc.; 2000.

National Cancer Institute



Last reviewed February 2003 by Jondavid Pollock, MD, PhD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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