Radiation therapy uses high energy rays, such as X-rays, to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation damages the genetic material of cancer
cells. This stops their growth. Radiation may also damage normal cells that are close to the cancer cells. But normal cells usually repair themselves, while the cancer cells cannot.
Side effects from radiation therapy are a problem. Usually the side effects are temporary. But some side effects may be permanent. Researchers keep looking for the lowest radiation dose that effectively kills cancer cells. And with new technology, people getting radiation therapy have fewer problems than in the past.
I didn’t grow up tanning. I have fair skin and red hair, and I didn’t like
lying out in the sun or even going to the beach. And when I was exposed to the
sun, I didn’t get tan. I just got a little pink and freckled.
In fact, I got my first tan when I went to Florida in 2001. I was 17 years
old, and I was really excited about how I looked. When I returned home, I
started going to a tanning salon to keep up the color. Over the next two and a
half years I returned once a week. I wasn’t super dark;...
radiation therapy (EBRT). Radiation comes from a machine outside the
body and is aimed at a specific part of your body. It is usually given in multiple doses over several weeks. The two most common forms of external radiation are:
Conformal radiotherapy (3D-CRT). 3D-CRT uses a three-dimensional planning system to target a strong dose of radiation to where the cancer cells are in the body. This helps to protect healthy tissue.
Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). IMRT uses newer 3D-CRT technology to target the cancer.
Internal radiation therapy. Radioactive materials are placed into the vagina, prostate,
or other areas where the cancer cells are found. Internal radiation therapy is also called brachytherapy (say "bray-kee-THAIR-uh-pee").
Radiation for internal use may be sealed inside of needles, seeds, wires, or catheters.
For high-dose rate brachytherapy (HDR brachytherapy), radioactive material is placed into an organ, such as the prostate, for a very brief period of time (seconds to minutes) and then removed.
For low-dose rate brachytherapy (LDR brachytherapy), radioactive material is placed into an organ, such as the prostate, and left there permanently.
Systemic radiation therapy. Radioactive material (such as radioactive iodine) is given by mouth or into a vein, so it travels in the blood to tissues throughout the body.
Radiation therapy may be given before surgery to shrink a tumor, such as with bladder cancer. Or it may be given during surgery or while you are getting chemotherapy. Or it may be given after other treatment, such as after surgery for breast cancer.
Radiation therapy may be given when a person with cancer is not well enough for other treatment, such as surgery. Radiation therapy is also used in palliative care for advanced or metastatic cancer. For example, it can relieve pain by shrinking tumors in the bones.
Other kinds of radiation therapy
Hyperfractionated radiation therapy. This radiation therapy uses lower doses that are given more often, such as twice a day rather than once a day. This may increase the side effects while having treatment. But it may cause fewer long-term side effects.
Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT). This therapy very precisely targets a tumor anywhere in the body while minimizing damage to normal tissue around the tumor. It can be used for small to mid-sized tumors. A single treatment or several treatments are all that may be needed.
Proton therapy. This kind of radiation therapy is used mostly in clinical trials. Proton therapy uses a type of energy (protons) different from X-rays. This allows a higher amount of specifically directed radiation, which may provide more protection to nearby healthy tissues. Sometimes proton therapy is combined with X-ray therapy.
Recovery depends on the tumor site,
the stage and grade of the cancer, and the amount of healthy tissue that is
affected during treatment. Damage to normal cells during radiation therapy may cause side effects.
Skin changes are common with radiation therapy. The skin in the area of your body that is getting radiation may turn red and tender, itch, peel, or blister. Toward the end of treatment, the skin may become moist and "weepy." These
effects are temporary, and the area will gradually heal when treatment is
completed. You may notice
a slight change in the color of the skin.
Good skin care is important during radiation therapy. And you should
check with your doctor before using any deodorants, lotions, or
creams on the treated area. To care for your skin:
Use lukewarm water for showers or quick baths. Pat yourself dry with a soft towel, being careful not to rub off any ink marks that are used for your radiation.
Avoid putting heating pads or cold packs or anything that is hot or cold on this skin.
Wear soft cotton clothes that are loose on your body.
Expose the area to air as much as possible to help the skin heal.
Protect your skin from the sun by staying out of the sun and wearing a hat with a wide brim, long sleeved-shirts, and long pants when you are outdoors. Talk to your doctor about wearing sunscreen.
Fatigue is a common side effect of radiation therapy. It is a sense of tiredness that doesn't seem to go away, even with rest or sleep. Some people may only have mild fatigue. For others, fatigue may be a bigger problem. It may last from 6 weeks to a year after your last radiation treatment.
Staying active can lift your mood and help you feel better. It can also help reduce problems with anemia during treatment. It's fine to be active in blocks of 10 minutes or more throughout your day. Walking with a friend can help you keep a routine.
patient. It can take time to fully recover. Balancing rest with activity is
important. Try to match your activities to your energy levels.
Why It Is Done
Radiation therapy is used to
destroy cancer cells and to shrink tumors.
How Well It Works
Radiation is one of the main treatments used to kill cancer cells. But it doesn't always cure cancer. Researchers continue to study safer and more effective ways to use radiation therapy to treat cancer.
Radiation therapy may shrink a tumor, give you relief from cancer symptoms, or possibly cure cancer. But it has risks for serious side effects. Your doctor will recommend radiation therapy if he or she thinks that the benefit you may have from this treatment is greater than the risks.
Risks of radiation therapy during and right after treatment include:
In rare cases, a second cancer caused by exposure to radiation.
What To Think About
For more information about the side effects from radiation therapy and ways to cope with them, read "Radiation Therapy and You: Support for People With Cancer" from the National Cancer Institute. You can find this booklet online at www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/radiation-therapy-and-you.