Background: Our understanding of both the importance of local control for survival of patients with unresectable lung cancer and the inadequacy of conventional radiation therapy (RT) to provide this local control has undergone marked changes in the past 2 decades. Methods: A review was conducted of recent studies and meta-analyses in the literature that have convincingly demonstrated the value of thoracic irradiation in increasing long-term survival in patients with both small-cell lung cancer and non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Results: Large cooperative trials have shown long-term local control of only approximately 10% for NSCLC using conventionally planned radiation to doses of 60-64 Gy either as a single modality or when preceded by induction chemotherapy. Concurrent chemotherapy may modestly improve local control at the cost of greater acute esophageal toxicity. Simple escalation of radiation dose is limited by the tolerance of normal intrathoracic organs. Recent developments in anatomic and functional imaging, computerized RT planning, and RT delivery, as well as a reassessment of the appropriate target volumes for RT in the context of combined modality therapy, provide the capability to better conform regions of high dose to the target volume and test the hypothesis that increases in tumor dose will improve local control and survival. Conclusions: Encouraging phase II data have been reported from single institutions using individually developed software and hardware. The availability of commercial tools for planning and delivering such conformal treatment will allow prospective assessment of the true value of these technologies in the management of patients with lung cancer.
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