Is Radiation Oncology Right for You?
Radiation therapy (or radiotherapy) is often a primary treatment for lung cancer. It’s sometimes referred to as a palliative measure, which improves the patient’s quality of life if their disease does not respond to surgery or chemotherapy. Radiation therapy can also be used before surgery to shrink the tumor and make it more manageable or after surgery to eliminate any remaining cancerous cells. Radiation therapy can also be used if the lung cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
There are two types of lung cancer: small-cell lung cancer (typically found in current or former smokers) and non-small-cell lung cancer (grows slowly over time), and the treatment differs slightly for both.
Small-cell lung cancer is less common but more aggressive. Radiation therapy is often paired with chemotherapy to combat this type of cancer. Surgery is not used as often because it spreads so quickly.
Non-small-cell lung cancer takes a long time to spread beyond the lung, so local treatments (surgery and radiation) are typically used.
How Does Radiation Oncology Work?
There are three main types of radiation oncology for lung cancer: external beam radiation therapy, internal radiation therapy, and systemic radiation therapy.
External beam radiation is a large machine, similar to an x-ray, that beams the radiation into a specific part of your body. The internal radiation works internally; either implants are placed close to/inside the tumor or injected through a catheter. Systemic radiation therapy is swallowed or injected into the blood to travel throughout the body.
What Are the Side Effects?
Radiation therapy can help with some of the cancer’s side effects like shortness of breath. However, there are some side effects of radiation to be aware of. Patients should be prepared for fatigue following treatments, so it’s important to get a lot of rest, as well as a possible loss of appetite.
Patients can also experience hair loss in the chest area, though there’s a chance this is only temporary. Skin irritation is fairly common (red, dry, tender, itchy - similar to a sunburn), so ask your doctor about soothing creams. Patients should avoid very hot water, perfumes, cosmetics, and deodorants. Instead, you can keep it clean with gentle soap and warm water, and use sunscreen when outside.
More serious side effects include esophagitis (inflamed tract connecting your mouth to your stomach) and radiation pneumonitis (coughing and shortness of breath), though these are less common and often clear up after treatment.
Remember, this is simply an overview as each patient should receive an individualized treatment plan. Believe in their guidance but make sure you’re open with your oncologist about your needs and how you’re feeling so they can give you the best care possible.
Written by: Joanna Hynes