What Is Lung Cancer Radiation?
Radiation therapy, also known as radiotherapy, is a common form of lung cancer treatment. This treatment uses high-energy particles or rays to destroy cancer cells’ DNA. The cancer cells then lose the ability to reproduce, causing tumors to shrink.
Radiation therapy can be curative or palliative. Curative radiation therapy attempts to cure the cancer completely or make other treatments more effective. Palliative radiation therapy aims to relieve lung cancer symptoms.
While doctors traditionally use radiation therapy to treat lung cancer patients with unresectable tumors (which can’t be surgically removed), it may also be combined with other treatments, such as surgery and chemotherapy.
By receiving radiation and other treatments, patients are often able to extend their lung cancer life expectancy, ease symptoms, and prevent metastasis (cancer spread). In fact, studies have shown radiation therapy to be successful in keeping SCLC, a more complicated type of lung cancer to treat, from spreading to the brain.
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Types of Radiation for Lung Cancer
Doctors may prescribe different types of radiation treatments for lung cancer. Learn about each of these types below.
Brachytherapy is an internal radiation therapy that requires doctors to place small objects containing radiation sources into the cancerous tumor.
The radiation source may be kept in place for a few minutes or longer. How long it remains depends on the type of lung cancer, where the tumors are in your body, the type of radiation source, and other cancer treatments you have had.
External Beam Radiation Therapy
External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) is what most people think of when radiation for lung cancer is discussed. During this treatment, doctors use a machine to direct radiation to the lung cancer tumor and the tissue surrounding it.
Before performing EBRT, your cancer care team will pinpoint exactly where they need to aim the radiation with CT (computed tomography) scans or X-rays. They will also look at how your lungs move when you breathe and at any other surrounding organs and tissues, so they can prepare if those get damaged.
Patients may have to return for EBRT 5 days a week for several weeks, depending on their lung cancer stage, type, and other treatment options used.
Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy
Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is a type of EBRT. Doctors use a machine to apply radiation from multiple angles.
The energy of radiation beams is also adjusted throughout the treatment to minimize damage to surrounding tissues.
Doctors usually prescribe IMRT if the treatment area is close to sensitive organs and tissues.
Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy
Stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) or stereotactic ablative radiotherapy (SABR) is another form of EBRT. Doctors perform SBRT by directing multiple radiation beams to meet at a point in the tumor.
This method ensures the tumor receives a high dose of radiation while the surrounding tissues receive less. Patients are also put in a specially designed body frame to reduce movement during treatment.
Because this treatment uses such high levels of radiation, it is typically not given in more than 5 treatments and is not repeated over a few weeks like other EBRT methods.
Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) uses about 200 precisely focused radiation beams to treat lung cancer that has spread to the spinal cord or central nervous system.
While its name includes “surgery,” this treatment doesn’t involve any surgical incisions. Doctors use 3D imaging to target high radiation doses to tumors with minimal impact on the surrounding healthy tissue.
Doctors use three types of technology during SRS:
- Gamma Knife machines use 192 or 201 small beams of gamma rays to treat lung cancer tumors.
- Linear accelerator (LINAC) machines use X-rays to treat lung cancer tumors. They are also known by the brand name of the manufacturer, such as TrueBeam or CyberKnife.
- Proton beam therapy (charged particle radiosurgery) is a cutting-edge therapy using a thin beam of high-energy radiation directly to cancerous tissue. It allows for more precision, keeping healthy tissues from being harmed by the radiation.
What to Expect During Lung Cancer Radiation
It’s normal to feel anxious when discovering that you will need radiation therapy. Learning about what to expect during a lung cancer radiation session can help you feel more comfortable and prepared.
Here’s what you can expect when undergoing radiation therapy for lung cancer.
1. Imaging Scans to Find the Tumor
First, your doctor will perform imaging scans to find your lung tumor. Examples of imaging scans include X-rays, CT scans, and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans.
2. Designing Your Radiation Treatment Plan
Once your oncologist (cancer doctor) has located your tumor, they will create a treatment plan, which may include radiation therapy.
They will choose the best type of lung cancer radiation therapy, determine your treatment timeline, and decide whether you need other treatments, such as surgery and chemotherapy.
3. Attending the First Treatment Session
What happens during your first treatment depends on the kind of therapy you’re receiving.
Most radiation treatments deliver radiation from a machine outside or around your body. Each session typically lasts 15 minutes and does not hurt. You will hear buzzing or clicking sounds throughout the session.
During internal radiation therapy, you will have to go to the hospital and undergo anesthesia while doctors place radioactive sources inside your body. Although most people feel little to no discomfort during this treatment, some may experience nausea or weakness from the anesthesia.
Once you wake up, the team will give you instructions about protecting others from radiation exposure. You can stop following these precautions once the temporary implant is removed and the permanent implant loses its radioactivity.
4. Recovering and Following Up
After your treatment plan is completed, you will have follow-up appointments with the radiation oncology doctor and team.
Your team will watch for side effects of radiation and see how the cancer is responding to treatment. They may begin developing further treatment plans and offer tips for easing side effects.
While recovering from treatment, remember to:
- Drink liquids regularly
- Plan for additional rest
- Protect your skin from sunlight
- Treat affected skin with lotion approved by your cancer care team
- Seek emotional support (i.e., going to therapy)
Side Effects of Radiation for Lung Cancer
Side effects of radiation therapy may begin shortly after treatment or appear up to a week after.
Side effects vary according to the individual but usually include:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Fever or other flu-like symptoms
- Hair loss on your chest and neck
- Shortness of breath
- Skin irritation
Fortunately, side effects tend to subside 2 weeks after treatment. Patients who receive stereotactic radiotherapy may get side effects during treatment or up to 3 months after treatment.
Talk with your doctor about all side effects so they can adjust your treatment plan to manage them.
Radiation vs. Other Lung Cancer Treatments
Radiation for lung cancer can often be combined with additional therapies as part of a multimodal treatment plan.
Other lung cancer treatments may include:
- Lung cancer surgery involves doctors removing any visible cancerous lung tumors and tissue from the body.
- Chemotherapy drugs kill fast-growing cells in the body, such as lung cancer cells. Unfortunately, they also kill healthy fast-growing cells, such as hair cells and the cells lining the inside of your mouth.
- Immunotherapy uses immune-boosting drugs to help the immune system identify and kill lung cancer cells.
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How Does Radiation Affect Lung Cancer Prognosis?
Lung cancer is often not diagnosed until it is in more advanced stages. This means it often has a poor prognosis (expected health outcome).
Fortunately, your prognosis may improve through radiation for lung cancer and any other treatments your care team recommends.
For example, a 2023 study published in the medical journal Scientific Reports found that stage 1 NSCLC patients treated with radiation had high rates of progression-free survival (PFS). PFS means that their lung cancer is stable and is not growing after treatment, allowing them to live for years after their diagnosis.
Other benefits of radiation for lung cancer include:
- Boosting the effectiveness of other cancer treatments
- Slowing lung cancer growth
- Shrinking tumors to reduce lung cancer symptoms
- Stopping lung cancer tumor growth
Talk to your radiation oncology doctor and cancer care team to learn more about your lung cancer prognosis and the ideal treatment plan for you.
Cost of Lung Cancer Radiation
The cost of lung cancer radiation depends on several factors such as which radiation treatment a patient is getting and other treatment options.
A 2019 study in Cancer Medicine found radiation treatment ranged from $4,242 to $8,287 per month.
This cost can be unpredictable and add up quickly. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, one lung cancer patient’s treatment could cost more than $140,000 per year without insurance.
Thankfully, there are resources available to help those afford life-changing treatment. If you developed lung cancer due to asbestos exposure, you may be eligible for financial help through a lung cancer lawsuit.
Contact us today to see how we can help you cover the cost of lung cancer treatment.
Find Lung Cancer Radiation Therapy Options Near You
Radiation therapy is just one treatment option for lung cancer that can improve life expectancy and ease painful symptoms. It can also be combined with other treatments for even greater chances of long-term survival.
If you are interested in receiving radiation for lung cancer, talk with your doctor to see if it might be a good option for you.
Additionally, if you need help paying for lung cancer treatment, our team may be able to help. Get started with a free case review today.
Lung Cancer Radiation FAQs
What is the most successful treatment for lung cancer?
The most successful treatment for lung cancer will depend on several factors, including the type and stage of your lung cancer diagnosis. For example, radiation for lung cancer is sometimes a successful treatment for patients because it can shrink tumors before other treatments are explored.
Talk with your doctor and cancer care team to determine what treatment options will be the best for you.
What is the success rate of radiation therapy for lung cancer?
Radiation for lung cancer has relatively high success rates, especially for early-stage patients who may not be eligible for surgical treatment.
For example, a study of 55 patients with stage 1 NSCLC that was not treatable with surgery found that those treated with stereotactic body radiation therapy had a 3-year survival rate of 82%. Further, 77% of patients experienced progression-free survival.
What stage of lung cancer is treated with radiation?
Radiation therapy may be used to treat any stage of lung cancer. In early stages, it may be used to limit metastasis, and in later stages it can be combined with other treatments like surgery and chemotherapy to increase the chances of remission or progression-free survival.
Can radiation help stage 4 lung cancer?
Yes. Radiation can help stage 4 lung cancer patients by shrinking and killing cancer tumors. It can reduce symptoms and improve the quality of life of people whose cancer does not respond to chemotherapy and surgery.
However, not every person will be eligible for radiation therapy. Talk with your doctor to see what treatment is best for you.
How long does it take for lungs to heal after radiation?
Most people recover from radiation therapy for lung cancer within a few weeks. During this time, patients will rest and may experience side effects like shortness of breath as the lungs recover from treatment.
Fatigue and skin irritation side effects may also appear. As you heal, you can manage your side effects by drinking plenty of water and resting as much as possible.