Radiation therapy for lung cancer uses high-energy beams called x-rays to kill cancer cells. It is very effective at controlling or eliminating tumors at specific sites in the body and can improve a patient’s prognosis.
At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, we give radiation therapy to treat people whose lung cancers are confined to the chest but cannot be removed surgically. Using the most advanced technologies, we can now deliver powerful doses of radiation directly to your tumor with great precision. Some of the techniques we use can reduce the number of radiation treatments you need compared with more traditional approaches, while also limiting the risk of side effects.
We also can use radiation therapy to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life in people whose cancer does not respond to surgery or chemotherapy.
Our team uses innovative imaging combined with a sophisticated computer system to deliver high doses of radiation to lung tumors. This treatment takes into account how a tumor moves when people breathe. Depending on the scenario, treatment can be effective for people who receive radiation therapy alone, or when used in combination with chemotherapy, targeted therapies, or immunotherapy.
For safety, we can take images on a daily schedule to track the tumor and maximize protection of normal tissue. This imaging shows the tumor’s location at all times to make sure the radiation is precisely targeted.
Types of Radiation Therapy
Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy
Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) delivers extremely precise, very intense doses of radiation to cancer cells. It involves the use of sophisticated image guidance that pinpoints the exact three-dimensional location of a tumor. SBRT makes it possible to use high doses of radiation in a small number of doses. This approach is called hypofractionated radiation therapy. At MSK, our radiation oncologists use a form of hypofractionated radiation therapy called MSK PreciseTM,which delivers these high doses with great precision.. This treatment is often used for early stage disease where the tumor is small and the cancer is confined to the lungs. Our team has an extensive experience using this technique, controlling tumors 90% of the time with limited side effects.
Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy
Our radiation oncologists pioneered the use of intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) to treat lung cancer. Following a CT scan that maps the tumor in 3-D, IMRT uses sophisticated computer programs to calculate and deliver customized doses of radiation directly to the tumor from different angles. This makes it possible to give a high dose of radiation to lung tumors, especially those that involve the central structures in the chest such as the lymph nodes.
Because it can be hard to distinguish tumor cells from nearby normal tissue when using traditional CT scans, we incorporate PET imaging into the treatment planning process. PET technology allows our doctors to more precisely — and safely — target the tissue containing cancer cells and avoid harming healthy tissue.
We treat approximately 400 patients with non-small cell lung cancer each year using IGRT to the chest as well as for lung cancer that has spread to other areas of the body.
For some cases of lung cancer, our radiation oncologists can use proton therapy. This advanced form of radiation therapy uses protons rather than x-rays to treat tumors that may be difficult to eliminate with standard radiation. Proton therapy directs its cancer-fighting energy to precise locations within the body, allowing our doctors to deliver the necessary dose to the tumor — maximizing the chance of destroying it — while simultaneously lowering the dose to normal tissues. Currently, this cutting-edge technology is available at a limited number of locations in the United States.
Some people with lung cancer may be candidates for brachytherapy. This involves implanting radioactive material sealed inside a thin tube into the body during surgery to help decrease the risk of cancer returning after treatment. We are also able to deliver high doses of radiation to the airways using a specialized approach called endobronchial brachytherapy. This form of radiation therapy may be useful in selected patients whose cancer has returned in the larger airways.
Clinical Trials in Radiation Oncology
The lung cancer team at MSK is an international leader in clinical trials that evaluate new radiation techniques, or radiation therapy combined with surgery and chemotherapy.
Many of our clinical trials aim to further improve the precision of our imaging and radiation delivery techniques. Our goal is to minimize damage to surrounding normal tissues and maximize the effectiveness of the radiation treatment to the tumor.
We are also studying several targeted drugs in combination with radiation therapy to understand how radiation therapy and the immune system interact to fight cancer.
The list of our current available clinical trials can be found here:
If you would like to learn more about the clinical trials that MSK has to offer using radiation therapy for lung cancer, please call 212-639-2087.