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Cancer Treatments: Radiation Therapy

Commonly asked questions about radiation therapy:

What Is Radiation Therapy?

Radiation therapy, along with chemotherapy, is among the most widely used cancer treatment methods with nearly two-thirds of all cancer patients undergoing a treatment involving radiation during their battle with cancer.

The therapy itself involves focusing beams of intense energy on the area infected by cancerous cells. The beams, often X-ray or protons, release enough energy to kill the cancerous cells it comes into contact with.

When referring to radiation therapy, it is important to understand that it is used to categorize two different radiation based treatment methods.

The first of these methods is external beam radiation therapy, a method in which the energy beams originate outside the body and are aimed at the area afflicted. Brachytherapy, the second type, involves the radiation being placed inside the body, giving it the common name of internal radiation therapy.

Those who pursue radiation therapy to assist in defeating their cancer will typically be assisted by a team of medical professionals who will oversee the process. This team may include a radiation oncologist, medical radiation physicist, dosimetrist, and radiation therapist among others.

What Type Of Cancer Is Radiation Therapy Used For?

While exact figures are unknown, it is estimated that between half and two-thirds of all cancer patients undergo some form of radiation. Because radiation treatments aim to destroy the cancer cells rather than remove or alter the function of an organ, the treatment can be used for almost every form of cancer as an effective treatment method.

Additionally, the ability for a medical professional to direct where the beams or radiation implant is focused gives radiation a unique adaptability that proves exceptionally useful when treating various forms of cancer at various stages of development.

Prior to undergoing radiation therapy, an individual should consult with their radiation cancer team to ensure that radiation is the most effective treatment option available in their situation.

Some of the cancers that most commonly utilize radiation in treatment include:

When Is Radiation Therapy Used?

Radiation may be used in similar situation as chemotherapy and at times in conjunction with a chemotherapy or other drug treatment. Although effective when used on its own, radiation is most often pair with another treatment method to offer an individual the most effective treatment method possible.

The full range of radiation uses includes pre-surgery, post-surgery, or in place of surgery. When used in these situations, goals of radiation therapy include:

  • Shrink Cancerous Tumor (Pre-Surgery)
  • Halt Remaining Cell Growth (Post-Surgery)
  • Eradicate Cancer Cells (Surgery Replacement W/ Other Methods)
  • Alleviate Cancer Symptoms

What Are Radiation Therapy Side Effects?

Although effective, it can often lead to the development of both short and long-term side effects in those undergoing treatment. Short term (acute) side effects typically occur during treatment, subsiding once treatment has ended without causing any lasting health problems.

Long term (late) side effects, unlike short term, do not typically dissipate once treatment has ended. In fact, most of the time these side effects do not even develop until months or even years after the radiation treatments have ended. The delayed and proceeding long term nature of these health complications have led this category of side effects to be referred to as late or chronic side effects.

What Are Short Term Side Effects Of Radiation Therapy?

While some acute side effects related to radiation therapy are common among all cases of treatment, many of them are specific to the type of treatment being pursued. For the most part, only fatigue and skin issues can be expected in all cases with other complications occurring when the treatment is focused on their immediate area of the body.

The most commonly reported acute side effects for are the following:

Fatigue Redness In Skin
Skin Irritation Diarrhea
Nausea Mouth Sores
Hair Loss Vomiting

What Are Long Term Side Effects Of Radiation Therapy

Chronic side effects triggered by radiation therapy often take extended periods of time to develop, if they develop at all, and are typically far more serious than their acute counterparts.

A second cancer developing due to radiation exposure is typically cited as the most serious of all the possible chronic side effects. The cancer that may develop, although rare, most often does so in the area of the body that was subjected to the majority of the radiation treatment dosages.

Other chronic side effects related to radiation therapy use include:

Fibrosis Bowel Damage
Diarrhea Memory Loss
Lung/Heart Problems Infertility

What Are The Pros Of Radiation Therapy?

Like all cancer treatment options, radiation therapy carries its own unique set of pros and cons that must be considered before pursuing treatment.

According to the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, the pros can be:

  • Death Of Cancer Cells
  • Death Of Microscopic Disease
  • Ability To Shrink Tumors
  • Provide Safe Treatment Method
  • Synergy With Systematic Therapy
  • Organ Preservation
  • Stimulate Immune Response

What Are The Cons Of Radiation Therapy?

While there are multiple pros to pursuing radiation therapy, the treatment is not without its cons. Cons associated with it include side effects, limitations, and other treatment disadvantages,

According to the same data from the Winship Cancer Institute, the cons are often cited as the following:

  • Damage Surrounding Tissue
  • Inability To Kill All Tumors
  • Inability To Kill All Cancer Cells
  • Inability To Relieve Mass Effect
  • Inability To Effect Areas With Poor Oxygen Supply
  • Increase Risk Og Wound Complication
  • Increase Risk Of Poor Healing
  • Inconvenience Of Treatment

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