When people think of cancer, chemotherapy is probably the first type of treatment that comes to mind, but what about radiation therapy? It's easy to think that chemo and radiation are synonyms, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Because doctors recommend radiation therapy to about half of cancer patients, it's important to know what it is, how it helps treat the disease, and what the process involves.
Radiation is often used in conjunction with surgery and other therapies (such as the aforementioned chemotherapy) to eliminate cancer cells before they can replicate and spread. Radiation treatment may also be used to shrink a tumor before surgery or to treat a cancer that cannot be removed by surgery. It also can, at times, quickly relieve pain or other symptoms caused by a tumor.
Most types of radiation treatments are precisely aimed so that the therapy is directed at the tumor, rather than something that circulates throughout the body. This helps reduce the side effects of treatment and damage to healthy cells.
Types of Radiation Treatment
There are three main types of radiation therapy:
- External radiation is administered using a machine called a linear accelerator (or linac), which aims photons at the area specified for treatment. A course of external radiation begins with scans and measurements to precisely determine the location and strength of each field of treatment. Often, patients are tattooed with a few tiny dots to help realign the equipment each day to the precise location for treatment.
- Brachytherapy is internal radiation therapy. With this type of treatment, a radioactive implant the size of a grain of rice is placed inside the body near the tumor (this usually occurs during a surgical procedure). The implant is removed in some cases, but in others, it's left inside the body after the radioactivity ceases but should cause no issue.
- Systemic radiation therapy uses radioactive drugs administered orally or by IV. This treatment travels throughout the body and congregates near tumors, attaching itself to cancer cells. Hospitalization for this treatment may be required, and the patient's medical team and relatives need to exercise caution to avoid radiation exposure.
The Typical Appointment
Radiation doses are divided into fractions, so the patient gets a portion of the total dosage on each visit. The appointments are generally scheduled five days a week for five to eight weeks. Each daily appointment usually takes less than 30 minutes, and the treatment itself is quick and painless.
The medical team will leave the room during treatment. They can speak with and listen to the patient at this time, however. Each treatment lasts seconds to a few minutes, and the patient may be asked to hold their breath at times, but not for more than a few seconds. The appointment may include several treatments, with the team returning to the room to make some adjustments in between each dose.
Common side effects of radiation are fatigue and skin irritation, which both tend to increase in intensity throughout the course of treatment but should quickly improve after it's over. Skin irritation starts like a sunburn but can escalate, so the medical team needs to be in the loop regarding your skin condition. Plenty of rest is needed to help with fatigue, but remember that daily exercise can also help improve energy levels.
Other side effects of treatment vary with the part of the body being irradiated, such as nausea with brain or abdominal radiation, or issues with saliva following facial radiation. The more the medical team knows about the side effects the patient is experiencing, the more they can help.
If you or a loved one is going through radiation therapy, it's important to maintain a healthy regimen of self-care while staying in close communication with the medical team. The treatment is constant over its duration and can be exhausting, but it's important to have faith in the process. The medical team will be in close concert with you every step of the way.