Radiation Therapy for Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Dr. K on 2 April 2021

Radiation Therapy for Cancer

Your doctor may recommend radiation treatment if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. It’s a common cancer treatment that shrinks tumours and destroys cancer cells, and it may be the only one you need.


How Does It Work?

Your body’s cells are constantly dividing and creating new copies. However, when you have cancer, certain cells begin to divide at an abnormally rapid rate.

Radiation treatment can assist with this case. It utilises high-energy particles to kill or damage cancer cells by producing tiny breaks in their DNA, stopping them from forming new copies.

What’s the Goal of Radiation Therapy?

The aim is to delay or interrupt tumour growth in order to treat your cancer. Before surgery, the doctor may recommend that you receive radiation therapy to shrink a tumour. They can also prescribe it following treatment to avoid a tumour from recurring.

Radiation treatment may destroy cancer cells that have spread to other areas of the body before they develop into new tumours.

And if you have a cancer that is incurable, your doctor may recommend “palliative" radiation therapy. The aim is to shrink tumours and relieve cancer symptoms.


Types of Radiation Therapy

The type of radiation therapy you get is determined by factors such as:

  • The type of cancer you have and the size of your tumours
  • Where are the tumours located?
  • What is the proximity of the tumours to other tissues?
  • Your general well-being.
  • Other treatments you are currently undergoing.

The two most common types of cancer radiation therapy are:

External beam radiation therapy

Radiation beams from outside the body are aimed at a cancer tumour from a number of directions by a large device. It may be used to treat a wide spectrum of cancers.

The machine is quite loud, but it will not come into direct contact with you. It delivers radiation to the particular cancerous region. It analyses imaging scans with computer programmes and tailors treatments to the shape of your tumour.

A typical session takes 30 minutes to an hour, with the majority of the time spent moving you into the proper position. The procedure itself typically lasts for 5 minutes or so.

The bulk of individuals receive a dose of radiation five times per week. It is possible that the schedule could change. It depends on the type of beam used as well as other variables such as cancer’s type, size, and location.

Since external beam radiation treatment would not make you radioactive, you can safely interact with anyone.

Internal radiation therapy

Radiation can be injected into you in a solid or liquid form. You can take a pill or have an IV infusion of liquid radioactive iodine, which would circulate around the body in search of cancer cells to destroy them. This is referred to as “systemic therapy." It’s most often used to treat thyroid cancer.

Another treatment choice is brachytherapy, which includes a technician implanting a solid form of radiation into the body, such as a capsule or other type of implant. They inject it into you using a catheter or an applicator, which is a small tube.

Brachytherapy is used to treat cancers of the head, neck, breast, cervix, endometrium, prostate, and eye.

If the doctor practises brachytherapy with a low dose of radiation, the implant can be removed within a few days. If they use a larger dosage, they typically remove it after 10 or 20 minutes, and you’ll get two doses per day for two to five weeks.

Your doctor may even permanently insert an implant in your body, which will reduce the radiation with time, based on the type and location of the cancer and any treatments you’ve received.

Your body or body fluids may emit radiation for a while after getting internal radiation therapy, so you’ll definitely need to remain in a hospital and stop or restrict visits with loved ones initially.

You’ll have regular follow-up visits regardless of the type of radiation treatment you get. Your doctor will examine you and speak to you about your symptoms and side effects. They can also order lab and imaging testing, such as blood tests, X-rays, CT, MRI, or PET scans, to look for signs of cancer.

Pros and Cons

Radiation therapy can increase the risk of developing other cancers by a small percentage. The risk is normally outweighed by the benefits, so the doctor will support you in deciding which treatment is right for you.

If you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, tell the doctor. Radiation treatment has the potential to harm an unborn child. Since little is understood on how it affects sperm, doctors normally advise men to stop actively trying to conceive with their partners whilst undergoing treatment and for a few weeks thereafter.


Side Effects

Radiation treatment can have adverse effects because it impacts healthy cells too. This can occur during therapy and then fade away weeks afterwards, or they may persist for years. Some may present months or years later for the first time.

Fatigue, transient hair loss, sexual and reproductive issues, distorted vision, and skin changes are also possible side effects, depending on which part of the body is being treated.

Other concerns you may find include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Swelling
  • Taste changes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Urinary problems
  • Diarrhoea

If you have any of these side effects, speak with the doctor. There are precautions you may take to help relieve the effects, like taking medication.


Referenced on 2.4.2021

  1. American Cancer Society: “What Is Radiation Therapy?"
  2. National Cancer Institute: “External Radiation Therapy for Cancer," “Internal Radiation Therapy for Cancer," “Radiation Therapy Side Effects," “Radiation Therapy to Treat Cancer," “What Is Cancer?"
  3. Department of Health and Human Services: “Radiation Therapy and You: Support for People with Cancer."
  4. https://www.webmd.com/cancer/radiation-therapy-cancer

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