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Radiation Therapy for Cancer Pain

Radiation therapy is the use of X-rays to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation damages the genetic material of cells in the area being treated, leaving the cells unable to continue to grow. Although radiation damages normal cells as well as cancer cells, the normal cells can repair themselves. The cancer cells cannot.

Radiation is also used to control pain by destroying a growing tumor that is invading or interfering with normal tissue, such as when a tumor presses on bones, nerves, or other organs. This may be done with radiation to part of the body or, in rare cases, with radiation to the whole body. Or you may be given a shot with a radioactive medicine.

What To Expect After Treatment

Radiation therapy can reduce pain by shrinking a tumor. And for cancer that has spread to the bones, walking and moving around may be less painful.1

Why It Is Done

Radiation therapy is used to control pain when a growing tumor invades or interferes with normal tissues, such as bones, nerves, or other organs.

How Well It Works

Radiation therapy can reduce pain. Often only a single treatment is needed to relieve pain.1

Risks

Side effects are common with radiation therapy and may depend on what area of the body receives radiation. Side effects typically go away after radiation therapy is over. Side effects can include:

  • Fatigue.
  • Hair loss near the treated area.
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Painful urination.
  • Skin darkening in the area exposed to a beam of radiation, which can be permanent.
  • Sore throat (with neck or chest radiation).
  • Vaginal dryness in women and erection problems in men (with pelvic radiation).

What To Think About

While radiation therapy may not cure the cancer that is causing pain, it may reduce symptoms and slow the spread of the disease.

Complete the special treatment information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this treatment.

Citations

  1. National Cancer Institute (2011). Pain PDQ—Patient Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/supportivecare/pain/Patient.

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerMichael Seth Rabin, MD - Medical Oncology
Last RevisedOctober 31, 2011

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: October 31, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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