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Radiation Therapy for Lung Cancer

  • Jondavid Pollock, MD, PhD
Publication Type:

Condition InDepth

Radiation Therapy for Lung Cancer

Radiation therapy uses high energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells. Special tools and dosing will help to kill as much of the cancer as possible while minimizing the effect on nearby healthy tissue. A radiation oncologist will customize the treatment dose for individual needs.

For lung cancer, radiation therapy may be used in combination with chemotherapy (called chemoradiation). The combination of chemotherapy and radiation is often more effective in shrinking lung tumors and extending life than either treatment alone. The timing of treatment will depend on the stage of the tumor.

Radiation therapy may also be given:

  • Before surgery to shrink the tumor and minimize the amount of tissue that has to be removed
  • After surgery to kill any remaining cancerous tissue
  • For metastatic cancer to relieve symptoms and extend survival time
  • To the brain to help lower the chances of recurrent small cell brain tumor

External Beam Radiation

There are many different radiation machines used for external radiation therapy based on the size and location of the tumor, surrounding tissue, and type of cancer. The radiation oncologist will discuss options, doses, and frequency of radiation so that the highest amount of radiation can be delivered to the cancer with as little impact on healthy tissue as possible. External beam radiation is often given daily over the course of several weeks.

Radiation of a Tumor.

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Delivery methods help to deliver the maximum amount of radiation possible to the tumor while minimizing exposure to healthy surrounding tissue. Methods to improve delivery include:

  • 3D conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT)—Imaging tests are used to map the lungs. Once the tumor is located, radiation beams are directed at it from different angles.
  • Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)—A computerized machine rotates around the patient to deliver radiation to the tumor site. Dosage can be weakened or strengthened depending on the target tissue. Another type of IMRT that can be used is called volumetric modulated arc therapy (VMAT).
  • Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT)—Mainly used for early stage lung cancer. It may be used when surgery cannot be done or the patient chooses not to have it.
  • Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS)—Stereotactic radiosurgery is a type of external radiation therapy that can deliver radiation in a very precise location. This allows delivery of higher doses of radiation because it can precisely deliver it to the tumor and not healthy tissue. The precise delivery may also require fewer doses than traditional radiation therapy. It is used in patients who have one tumor that has spread to the brain. In some cases, it may be used at the same time as surgery.


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  • Radiation therapy for non-small cell lung cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/non-small-cell-lung-cancer/treating/radiation-therapy.html. Updated May 16, 2016. Accessed August 30, 2017.
  • Radiation therapy for small cell lung cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/small-cell-lung-cancer/treating/radiation-therapy.html. Updated May 16, 2016. Accessed August 30, 2017.
  • Small cell lung cancer. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115654/Small-cell-lung-cancer . Updated June 23, 2017. Accessed August 30, 2017.
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  • Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.