Radiation therapy is not new. It is an old concept, uses of which has increased in the past two decades. Its role in cancer management has grown from curative to palliative intent. However, there are still certain misconceptions regarding this therapy.
What Is Radiation Therapy?
These are high energy X-rays used to kill cancer cells. These powerful rays attack the DNA (the chemical inside the cell which contains the genetic information). After the attack, the damaged cells attempt to repair the damage, if the repair is successful, the cells live. But if the repair is not successful, the cells die.
What Are the Types of Radiation Therapy?
There are mainly two types of radiation therapy:
Both have their advantages and disadvantages and they are the weapons that are used depending upon the type of enemy.
The basic objective of radiation therapy or for that matter any treatment is maximum tumor kill and minimum side effects. With advances in cancer treatment, now it is feasible to achieve maximum tumor kill (>95 %) and keep side effects to a minimum. It is the latter that dictates the cost of treatment.
How Is Radiation Therapy Delivered?
Usually, it is a 5 to 6 weeks course, where the treatment is delivered five days or a week on an outpatient basis. Each session is of 15 to 20 minutes.
What Are Myths About Radiation Therapy?
Commons myths revolving around radiation therapy are:
What Is the Cost of Radiation Therapy?
The cost depends upon the technique used, but the effect of radiation is the same. However, it is the probability of side effects that vary, with latest advances, better sparing of the normal organs is possible. There are multiple charitable, governmental, and, private hospitals who render these expensive treatments affordable.
Radiation therapy for cancer by itself does not cause pain. Still, it causes certain side effects like peeling and itching skin with blisters and soreness, mouth soreness, stiff joints, fatigue, hair loss, and pain at the radiation site, along with site-specific side effects.
Some cancers require radiotherapy as the primary treatment as in stage two cancer. In adjuvant therapy, radiation is used after a cancer surgery as an extended treatment. In neoadjuvant therapy, radiation is used to shrink the tumor size before surgery. In advanced-stage cancer, radiotherapy is used to alleviate the symptoms due to cancer as palliative therapy. In some cases, it is used along with chemotherapy.
Radiotherapy is very much effective in treating and preventing cancer recurrence. In advanced stages, it helps in alleviating pain and cancer-related symptoms. Radiotherapy alone or combined with drugs can cure cancer of the prostate, cervix, skin, head, neck, lung, and bladder.
The life expectancy after radiation therapy depends upon the stage of cancer detection, type of cancer, patient mentality, the features of the cancer cells, and treatment plan. In contrast, radiotherapy helps prolong life in advanced cases.
Radiotherapy weakens the immune system for a short period based on the dose, part of the body irradiated, and radiation schedule. They decrease the body’s white blood cell count, which is responsible for immunity.
Spicy food, uncooked meat, raw vegetables, sugary, salty food, smoking, and alcohol must be avoided. Do not use skin products like deodorants, body lotion, oil, etc., on the area being irradiated during and after the treatment as they may hinder the treatment and healing. Avoid sun exposure and tight clothing to protect sensitive skin. Radiotherapy sessions must not be missed or skipped.
Weight loss occurs, especially in head and neck radiation therapy. Because of radiation, there are taste changes, mouth soreness, dry mouth, poor appetite, and difficult or painful swallowing in addition to nausea and vomiting. Hence food and fluid intake reduce, causing weight loss. But these are temporary and can be managed.
After radiation treatment, you can shower with lukewarm water and mild soap not loaded with many chemicals. Use a soft towel to dry the skin. Scrubbing the skin is not recommended. Moisturizers and sunscreens must be used to protect the skin.
A well-balanced diet with necessary nutrition and calories is essential to maintain body weight and build a healthy and strong body. Protein-rich foods like eggs, lean meat, dairy products, fish, beans, legumes, nuts, soy foods, protein powders, carbohydrates like potatoes, cereals, fruits, rice, quinoa, oats, and good fats can be consumed. Walnuts, vegetables, almonds, garlic, green tea, etc., provide the necessary nutrition.
Hair loss in radiation therapy can be temporary or permanent. Radiation destroys the cancer cells along with some healthy cells like hair cells which result in hair loss. The degree of hair loss depends on the dose and area being irradiated. Hair loss in radiotherapy is site-specific that causes hair loss only at the site of treatment.
- Get enough sleep.
- Take adequate rest.
- Have a well-balanced diet and eat well.
- Watch for side effects and report to your healthcare provider immediately.
- Protect and take care of your skin as it will be sensitive to the sun, everyday skin products, tight clothing, etc.
- Keep an eye on oral hygiene and follow essential oral hygiene procedures as radiation may cause dry mouth, increasing tooth decay.
Radiation therapy causes certain immediate side effects like fatigue, skin and mouth soreness, hair loss, nausea, vomiting, headache, low blood counts, taste changes, difficulty swallowing, jaw stiffness, etc. These last for a short period and are treatable. Certain site-specific symptoms like localized pain, infertility in radiation to the pelvic region, diarrhea, etc., can also be expected.
After the radiotherapy sessions finish, it is essential to keep an eye on the health and recovery, watch for any symptoms, and immediately report to the physician. A regular follow-up with the radiation oncologist for health evaluation will be advised, which must not be ignored.
Radiotherapy sessions are spread over weeks, and a session lasts between 15 minutes to 40 minutes. Breaks in between the sessions are given for the healthy cells to recover and alleviate the symptoms.
Short-term side effects of radiation last for about two to four weeks after radiotherapy ends. Based on the age, dose, and treatment site, radiation recovery may range from a few weeks to months or even a year. Symptomatic treatment, regular follow-up with personal care is needed for a better recovery.
The body cannot feel the radiation during radiotherapy sessions. There will not be any pain during the session. But skin side effects due to the destruction of certain healthy cells in the particular region and fatigue may be present temporarily.
Watching for a decrease in tumor markers in the blood through blood tests, radiological imaging studies like CT (computed tomography), MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), PET (positron emission tomography) scans after or during the treatment to see the size of the tumor and symptoms presented by the patient all help detect the working effect of radiotherapy.
Common side effects of radiotherapy include fatigue, skin soreness with blisters, itching, flaking, and burning sensation, mouth soreness with dryness, thick saliva, difficulty swallowing, taste changes, low blood counts, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, site-specific hair loss, pain, lymph gland swelling, infertility, diarrhea, weakened bones, etc.
While both targets to destroy cancer cells, both have their advantages and disadvantages. Based on the site and stage of cancer cells and age of the patient determine the therapy type. As radiotherapy targets the location of cancer, its side effects are localized. Chemotherapy side effects involve the whole body as the chemotherapeutic drugs are administered intravenously or orally.
Cancer of the skin, breast, brain, prostate, head and neck, throat, colorectal, lip, lung, uterus, bone, ovaries, and leukemia respond well to radiotherapy.
Internal radiation therapy is the use of radiation sources implanted into or near the tumor inside the body. It is also known as brachytherapy. These implants can be temporary or permanent. Cancer of the prostate, uterus, vagina, cervix, skin, gallbladder, rectum, eye, breast, head and neck, and lung can be treated effectively with internal radiation therapy.
Radiotherapy for breast cancer can be combined along with chemotherapy or post-surgery or instead of surgery. Standard radiotherapy sessions for breast cancer last five days a week for six to seven weeks.
Last reviewed at:
19 Nov 2021 - 2 min read
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