radiation-therapyOne out of three people will face a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. After careful consideration, you have chosen to undergo radiation therapy at the suggestion of your doctor.

You may have some concerns and questions about your treatment. Here are some helpful explanations to some of the questions you may have as you begin your battle against cancer.

What Is Radiation Therapy? When Is It Used?

According to the American Cancer Society, radiation therapy is one of the most common treatments for cancer. It’s often part of the main treatment for certain types of cancer, such as cancers of the head and neck, bladder, lung, and Hodgkin’s disease. Many other cancers are also treated with radiation therapy. Thousands of people become cancer free after getting radiation treatments.

Radiation therapy uses high-energy particles or waves, such as X-rays, gamma rays, electron beams, or protons, to destroy or damage cancer cells. Radiation therapy is also called radiotherapy, irradiation or X-ray therapy. It is not to be confused with radiology. While parts of radiation certainly can play a role in radiotherapy, the two are entirely different entities. Radiology refers to the actual process of medical imaging, i.e. X-rays.

Radiation can be done alone or used in combination with other treatments such as surgery or chemotherapy. Certain drugs are radiosensitizers, which means they can actually make the cancer cells more sensitive to radiation, giving radiation a better opportunity to kill cancer cells.

How Does RadiationTherapy Work?

Radiation therapy uses special equipment to send high doses of radiation to the cancer cells that are growing and dividing faster than many of the normal cells around them. The radiation damages cancer cells and causes them to die.

Radiation works by breaking a piece of the DNA molecule inside the cancer cell. This break keeps the cell from growing, dividing and spreading. Normal cells that are nearby may also be affected by radiation, but most recover and go back to working the way they are supposed to.

Unlike chemotherapy, which exposes the whole body to cancer-fighting drugs, radiation therapy is usually a local treatment. It is aimed at and affects only the part of the body being treated. Radiation treatment attempts to damage as many cancer cells as possible whileposing little risk to nearby healthy tissue.

Do the Benefits Outweigh the Risks and Side Effects?

Radiation therapy may be more helpful in some cases than in others. Some types of cancer are more sensitive to radiation than others and some cancers are in areas that are easier to treat with radiation without causing major side effects.

Doctors know the amount of radiation that your body can safely handle without causing irreversible damage. This information helps them decide how much to give and where to aim during treatment.

If your doctor or cancer team recommends radiation treatment, it’s because they believe the benefits you’ll get will outweigh the possible side effects, but you must be comfortable with the process. Knowing as much as you can about the possible benefits and risks can help you be sure that radiation therapy is best for you. Here are some questions you might ask your doctor:

  • What are the chances that radiation therapy will work?
  • If radiation therapy is to be done after surgery, what are the chances it will kill any cancer cells that were left behind? Could radiation be used instead of surgery?
  • What can I do to be ready for treatment?
  • What is the chance that the cancer will spread or come back if I do – or do not – have radiation therapy?
  • Are there other treatment options?
  • What will treatment involve? How often is it given? How long will it take?
  • How will the radiation affect the area around the cancer?
  • What side effects am I likely to have?
  • Will side effects limit my activity?

Your ability to do some things may be limited by side effects, but what you can do will depend on how you feel. Discuss this with your doctor; some patients feel like going back to work or doing leisurely activities while they are undergoing radiation therapy, but others find they need more rest than usual and can't do as much. Each person responds differently.

Take Care of Yourself:

Take care of yourself during radiation therapy. Your doctor or nurse will give you advice based on your treatment plan and the side effects youmay have, but here are some basics to pay attention to during your treatment.

  • Rest
  • Healthy diet
  • Skin in the treatment area
  • Loose clothing
  • Stay out of sun and wear sunscreen
  • Disclose all medicines you are taking

Your doctor and nurse are the best people to talk to about your treatment, side effects and the things you need to do to take care of yourself. Tell them about any other medical concerns you may have, any changes in the way you feel and any side effects you have, including skin changes, tiredness (fatigue), diarrhea or trouble eating. Be sure that you understand any home care instructions and know whom to call if you have more questions.

Image by justOneMoreBook from Flickr’s Creative Commons

Glen StanbeckAuthor:
Glen Stanbeck
About Author
Glen Stanbeck publishes a blog that provides up-to-date information on new medical treatments.

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