Radiation and Lung Cancer

One of the main treatment types for lung cancer is radiation. This involves the use of a strong, concentrated, energy-X-ray to kill or hinder cancer cells from growing and spreading. When a person is diagnosed with a disease like lung cancer, the next thing doctors consider is the patient’s treatment options and how to improve their prognosis.

If the patient is diagnosed at an early-stage lung cancer (stage I or stage II), then they’ll have a better prognosis and treatment plan than a later stage diagnosis. Most cancers tend to be diagnosed at these later stages, however, (stage III or stage IV). In this case, treatment options may encompass pairing with emerging treatments, a combination of other primary treatments, complementary therapies, or palliative care.

Your doctor may choose to utilize radiation before surgery to help shrink tumors to a more manageable size, or as the primary lung cancer treatment if the stage is early enough or the tumor is in an ideal spot. The physician may also choose to group treatments with chemotherapy or targeted treatments like immunotherapy for greater effect.

Types of Radiation Therapy

There are two types of radiation therapy, both of which work to stop malignant tumors from growing, but are administered to patients differently. They are:

An external beam radiation icon.

External Beam Therapy

As the name suggests, external beam therapy encompasses treatment delivered to a patient from an external source, or from outside the body where the beam is pointed towards the malignant tumors. It’s the most common type of radiation therapy utilized on cancer patients. An oncologist may choose from different technical systems to employ treatment:

  • Orthovoltage x-ray machines
  • Cobalt-60 machines
  • Linear accelerators
  • Proton beam machines
  • Neutron beam machines

The oncologist makes their decision based on each patient and type of cancer. These systems all administer the same treatment but differ in technology, electron beam energies, and intensities.

Stereotactic (Body) Therapy

A type of external beam radiation therapy, stereotactic treatment directs high doses of the x-ray in a small area. This can be helpful in that it reaches the tumor from a variety of angles, increasing beam coverage in the affected area.

A patiet receiving brachytherapy - a form of internal radiation therapy.

Internal Therapy

Also known as brachytherapy, internal radiation therapy encompasses the placement of a strong radiation source as close as possible to the cancer site. In some cases, a surgeon may place the source right into the tumor. Sources include wires, seeds or molds, and rods that hold radiation energy. This type of therapy is mostly used to treat the cervix, uterus, vagina, rectum, eye, head, or neck cancers. More rarely is it used on lung (or other) cancers.

Possible Side Effects

All types of radiation therapy have similar side effects on lung cancer patients but the severity of adverse effects will differ with each patient. Still, other patients may not experience certain complications at all. Common side-effects include:

  • Appearance and feel of sunburn
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Pain or discomfort when swallowing
  • Swollen skin
  • Temporary skin color change (pink or red) or  skin reaction (dry skin, itch)

Contact your physician if you experience these side effects and are concerned. They can recommend or suggest coping methods or pain relief medication.

Talk to Your Doctor

There are several factors the doctor will take into consideration when considering a treatment plan for their lung cancer patients. Stage of lung cancer, overall health, and treatment history are all factors your physician takes into account. Radiation may not pair well with other treatments if the patient’s health is not well enough.