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A lot of medical jargon gets used when talking about various available cancer treatments. It is normal to feel overwhelmed by different terms, and we want to help by explaining the process. Our guide will answer what you need to know about radiation therapy, how radiation therapy works, and the different types of radiation treatment for cancer.
What Is Radiation Therapy?
Radiation therapy (also known as radiotherapy and abbreviated to RT, RTx, or XRT) is a therapy that uses ionizing radiation to kill malignant cells such as those that cause cancer or other tumor-forming diseases. Radiotherapy is a non-invasive and accurate way to treat various cancers that cannot be surgically removed. It can also be coupled with other therapies to boost the overall treatment efficacy.
The simplest way to explain how radiation therapy works is by understanding what radiation is. Radiation is the common name for high-energy waves or particles like x-rays or gamma rays. As these waves are highly energetic, they can completely destroy or at least damage cells. This quality means we can use radiation for cancer treatments. The radiation makes small breaks in the DNA that’s within cancer cells that stop the cell from growing and eventually die off.
There are two main types of radiation for cancer treatment:
External radiation: A machine outside the body focuses high-energy rays on the tumor from outside the body. The process is done over a few weeks, sometimes twice a day over several weeks, but the dose is low enough that it does not cause severe bodily damage. This is particularly helpful when surgery or internal therapy cannot easily or accurately target the tumor, such as the brain.
Internal radiation: The source of radiation is put inside the body and can be solid (brachytherapy) or liquid (systemic therapy). Internal radiation therapy through brachytherapy uses capsules, seeds, or ribbons containing the radiation source placed near or in the tumor inside the body. Systemic therapy relies on your blood to carry the treatment throughout your body to seek and kill cancer cells and can be administered by an IV or injection. In either treatment, your body will give off low levels of radiation for a while.
Each type of general therapy can be used in combination with one another or adapted to the patient’s needs. The final type of therapy will be determined by your cancer care team and based on the kind and stage of cancer and your reaction to other treatments. They can also answer any specific question you may have.
Why Would I Need Radiation Therapy?
Over half of people with cancer are treated with radiation therapy. Sometimes it’s the only treatment they receive, while other times, it’s coupled with other types of treatments. Your doctors will decide the best care depending on the type and stage of cancer and any other health problems you may have.
Radiation therapy can also be provided for non-cancerous tumors. Since it’s non-invasive, it’s a wonderful way to shrink tumors without the effects of surgery.
How Does Radiation Treat Cancer?
Most types of radiotherapy do not reach all areas of the body, which means it’s not useful when targeting cancer that has spread to other parts inside of the body. Each cancer treatment and one’s reaction to the therapy is unique. Radiation therapy is often helpful for the following:
Shrink or Treat Early Stage Cancer
There are a few cancers that are very sensitive to radiation. In these cases, radiation may be used to shrink the tumor or cause it to completely go away. Radiation also causes slightly less damage than other treatments making it the preferred method for smaller, early-stage cancers.
Prevent Regrowth or Metastasis
Cancer can often spread to other parts of the body; doctors often assume a few cells spread to other areas even when they cannot detect it through CT scans or MRIs. Doctors can then use radiation therapy as a preventative treatment. For example, people with certain kinds of lung cancers will be treated with radiation to their head, even if there is no obvious cancer there because their type of lung cancer often spreads to the brain.
Some doctors will combine treatments such as radiotherapy immediately after surgery. This is done to eradicate cancer cells immediately around the tumor to ensure all malignant cells are destroyed. Sometimes preventative radiation can be given at the same as the radiation used to treat existing cancer.
Treat Recurring Cancer
In some cases where one’s cancer has returned, sometimes in a different location, radiation can be used to treat it or its symptoms. Using radiation in this situation will be dependent on whether radiation was previously used and its effect on cancer and a person’s well-being. If the cancerous part of the body has recently been treated with radiation, it may not be possible to give more radiation in the same place.
Treat the Symptoms of Advanced Cancer
Some cancers spread to too many areas to be cured, but smaller tumors can still be treated to bring relief to the patient. Radiation may help relieve pain or blockages that lead to difficulty swallowing, breathing, or processing food. This treatment is known as palliative care.
Other Cancer Treatments
Some people only rely on radiation treatment for cancer, but this is dependent on the kind of cancer they have. For many types of cancer, radiation is combined with various other therapies, such as chemotherapy, surgery, and immunotherapy. These are some of the more common therapies used in combination with radiotherapy:
The kind of cancer one has greatly impacts how radiation and chemotherapy affect cancer cells. This information can help doctors decide whether to treat with chemotherapy vs. radiation or both. Chemotherapy differs in two main factors: the kind of tumor it targets and where it acts. Chemotherapy is usually an outpatient procedure delivered through an IV, injection, directly on the skin, or taken orally. The specialized drugs target and kill active, rapidly dividing cells, keeping most non-cancerous cells safe. These drugs are circulated throughout the body so they can prevent cancer from spreading to other locations.
If the tumor is operable, surgery provides immediate and accurate results. The surgery will depend on the size and ease of accessibility of the tumor. Your surgeons will want to keep as much healthy tissue in place so your recovery is quick and smooth while ensuring all malignant cells are eradicated.
The above treatments focused on directly treating the tumor. Immunotherapy builds up the immune system, so it has the tools it needs to attack cancer cells internally or recover from other treatments. When given after radiation treatment, immunotherapy can encourage the body’s immune cells to clean up dying cancerous cells, flushing them out without further treatments.
Can Radiotherapy Cause Cancer?
The risk of developing a second cancer from these treatments is incredibly small and is outweighed by the benefit of treating cancer. However, the risk is not zero, although it is still quite low. Like many other therapies, your risk is dependent on the kind of case you have – which area of the body the treatment will need to be administered, how many treatments you’ll need, and what the dosage of each treatment is like.
If your care team suggests radiation therapy, they believe that the benefits you will receive will outweigh any possible side effects. Still, the ultimate decision is yours to make. You will be given specific information to your case by medical professionals, so you have everything you need to make an informed decision.
What to Expect From Radiation Therapy
Either form of radiotherapy you are assigned, your session will be quick and painless. External radiation therapy usually lasts about 15 minutes, while internal radiation therapy will depend on the tumor’s size and location. Treatments can be given five days a week for six or seven weeks. During this time, you will be given small doses, instead of a few large ones, to protect healthy cells. The break from the treatment during weekends allows your normal cells to recover.
After your initial treatment, you will need to take precautions to protect others from radiation exposure – specific instructions will be provided by your care team. You will be in contact with them throughout and after your treatment to see how well the therapy is working and if you have any concerns or side effects.
The most common side effects are fatigue and skin sensitivity after radiation therapy. During this time, your body is doing what it can to recover. Do your best to protect and nourish it while it heals.
Assistance During Radiation Therapy
No cancer is wanted or easy to get through. You definitely have a better chance of fighting it when treated early by a good team of doctors who come up with a good treatment plan. During your treatments, you may need more help than usual, and your therapies may take longer than you initially expected.
Our services at All American Hospice focus on comfort care, ensuring you receive emotional and spiritual support while receiving medical care and pain management. Some of our services extend to your family as they, too, are part of your health journey. If you need assistance living more comfortably during these times, please reach out to us. We are happy to help you in any way we can.