How Doctors Use Radiation to Treat Cancer
Cancer treatments can take many forms. Radiation, chemo, and immunotherapy are the most common. Despite millions of people fighting cancer and millions more acting as their support systems, many people know very little about how cancer treatments work to destroy cancer.
More than half of all cancer patients get radiation treatments. Radiation can be used alone or along with other types of cancer treatments. The decision to use radiation and/or chemotherapy depends on factors like the type, stage, and other health risks affecting the patient.
Here, we will discuss radiation and how doctors might use radiation therapy to treat cancer.
How Does Radiation Work?
Cells in your body grow. Then they divide and form new ones. Cancer cells, however, grow and divide faster than normal ones.
According to the American Cancer Society, “Radiation works by making small breaks in the DNA inside cells. These breaks keep cancer cells from growing and dividing and cause them to die.”
Normal, non-cancerous cells that are nearby can be adversely affected by radiation. However, most of the nearby healthy cells recover and resume normal function.
Unlike chemotherapy which is systemic and exposes the entire body to drugs, radiation therapy is a more localized treatment. Radiation is usually directed only at the specific body part with cancer. Doctors go through great pains to ensure that the radiation harms as few healthy cells as possible while still attacking the cancer.
How Are Radiation Treatments Used To Treat Cancer?
It is important to remember that most radiation treatments are not systemic. Radiation is not usually the “go-to” to treat cancers that have spread to multiple body parts.
When and how to use radiation depends on the individual patient and prognosis. However, radiation treatments are often utilized to accomplish the following:
- Curing early-stage cancers
- Shrinking early-stage cancers to prepare for surgical removal
- Preventing cancer from coming back in a different spot or recurring
- Managing or treating symptoms of advanced-stage cancer
- Treating or managing a recurrence of cancer
How Is Radiation Treatment Administered?
Most people getting treated with radiation for cancer receive external (external beam) radiation.
This is given by a machine that directs high-energy radiation waves into the specific area with cancer. Patients who receive external radiation usually do so regularly for several weeks. Sometimes patients get radiation every day or even twice a day.
Some patients receive internal radiation, also called brachytherapy. With this type of treatment, the patient receives a radioactive implant. The implant is placed in the body, close to the cancer source. It is left there to do its work of destroying cells.
Occasionally, someone receives systemic radiation. Systemic radiation is administered orally or intravenously.
Radiation Can Cause Side Effects
People tend to assume that radiation does not have side effects as chemotherapy does. This is not true. Some of the most severe side effects of radiation therapy are specific to the location of the cancer and the area receiving radiation. These can include nausea, headaches, diarrhea, confusion, and hair loss. Other side effects are more general and might consist of skin discoloration or itchiness.
At the very least, radiation treatment tends to cause all recipients to feel extreme emotional and physical fatigue.
If you know someone getting radiation therapy to treat cancer, one of the best things you can do is recognize that they might be feeling tired, anxious, depressed, and afraid.
They might need emotional support. They might need help running errands or completing some daily tasks. Anyone with cancer – whatever their treatment might be – needs to know that they can rely on their friends and family.
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