What Are the Side Effects of Radiation Therapy for Lung Cancer?

Radiation therapy for lung cancer can be very effective for destroying cancerous cells and shrinking tumors. However, like many other treatments, it can cause certain side effects. Specifically, when healthy cells are exposed to radiation, they can be damaged in the same way that cancerous cells are, leading to adverse effects at the site of exposure.

Because radiation therapy is a localized treatment, most side effects develop in the treatment area (for lung cancer, that is the chest). Recent research advances and new technology have facilitated highly precise radiation delivery techniques, which can reduce the impact on surrounding healthy tissue and the likelihood of side effects.

What to expect

Each patient responds differently to radiation treatment. As part of the planning process for your therapy, your radiation oncologist will explain what you can expect and recommend ways to prevent or alleviate any associated discomfort. Your experience will be influenced by a variety of unique factions, such as the location and type of your tumor, your radiation dosage, your general health and any other treatments you may be receiving, such as chemotherapy.

With that said, some common side effects of radiation therapy for lung cancer include:

  • General weakness and fatigue
  • Dry, red, itchy or peeling skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swallowing difficulties
  • Sore throat
  • Shoulder stiffness
  • Radiation pneumonitis (coughing, fever and a sensation of fullness in the chest that can occur several weeks or months after radiation therapy)
  • Radiation fibrosis (lung scarring)

Typically, many of these side effects (with the exception of radiation pneumonitis) appear shortly after treatment begins, then gradually worsen as treatment progresses. Most can be expected to improve within a few weeks after radiation therapy is completed.

Throughout the course of your radiation therapy for lung cancer, it will be important for you to communicate candidly with your physician. If you experience any unpleasant side effects, there may be options to help you manage them. However, your treatment team will need to understand what you are experiencing in order to help you feel better.

If you’d like to learn more about the common side effects of radiation therapy for lung cancer, a radiation oncologist in the Thoracic Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center can answer your questions. Call 1-888-663-3488 or complete our new patient registration form online. You are welcome to request an appointment with or without a referral.