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What to know during radiation for NSCLC

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If you’ve been diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), your care team might recommend a treatment regimen that includes radiation therapy. You and your care team will make that decision together, depending on your cancer diagnosis and staging, as well as an evaluation of the risks and benefits based on the state of your overall health. Whatever the recommendation, make sure you, your oncologist and your care team come to a decision that’s best for you. 

Why radiation?

Radiation is a therapy technique that’s used to shrink or kill the cancer cells and ultimately stop them from growing any further. This therapy can be used before surgery to shrink the tumor or after surgery to kill any cancer cells that might still be left in your lungs. If you’re not healthy enough for surgery or your cancer has already spread, your doctor might recommend a course of external radiation only. 

Additionally, radiation therapy can be recommended to relieve you of symptoms you might be experiencing due to the tumor, such as pain, bleeding, or airway blockage. 

Types of radiation therapy

There are three types of radiation therapy used to treat NSCLC:

  • External beam radiation therapy (ERT): this most common type of therapy is a painless, external treatment that only takes a few minutes. ERT is given 5 days per week, for 5 to 7 weeks. 
  • Brachytherapy (internal radiation therapy): where the doctor uses a bronchoscope during surgery to place radioactive material directly in the cancer or your airway.
  • Proton therapy: a newer, more specialized therapy sometimes recommended for Stage III patients, where proton beams rather than x-rays  are used to directly target the tumor.  

Common side effects

Whether you’re going through radiation therapy in conjunction with chemotherapy or not, there are side effects that you should be aware of and discuss with your doctor ahead of time. The most common side effects include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Changes to the skin, from redness to blisters and peeling
  • Hair loss

These side effects typically stop when radiation therapy is complete. 

More serious side effects

Additional side effects can include trouble breathing, cough and shortness of breath, due to the radiation targeting your chest and lungs directly. A sore throat and difficulty swallowing can occur if your esophagus is exposed to radiation, making it sometimes difficult to eat anything besides soft foods or liquids during your course of treatment. 

If you would like to talk about any side effects that you’re experiencing during radiation therapy you can connect with an Outcomes4Me oncology nurse practitioner at no charge through the Outcomes4Me app, using the “Ask Outcomes4Me” button.

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