What is radiation treatment?

Whether through yourself or a loved one, experiencing cancer can be extremely scary, stressful, and just difficult entirely. One thing, however, that can help a little is avoiding confusion by learning and understanding the treatment that you or your loved one will be undergoing.

There are many different types of treatment you may undergo to fight cancer, but radiation therapy is a very common treatment. So, in the case that you or your loved one is to undergo radiation therapy, here’s a guide to help you begin to understand it:

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is a treatment that uses high-energy radiation to shrink and kill cancer cells. Depending on the type of treatment an individual undergoes, the radiation is in the form of x-rays, gamma rays, and charged particles. About half of all cancer patients undergo some form of radiation treatment.

How does radiation therapy work?

Radiation therapy uses special equipment to send high doses of radiation to the cancer cells in to hopefully kill the cancer cells and prevent them from spreading. Most cells in the body grow and divide to generate new cells, but cancer cells grow and divide at a faster rate than normal cells.

Radiation works by making small breaks in the DNA sequences inside the cells. These breaks keep cancer cells from growing and dividing at the rate that they do, and often cause them to die. While nearby normal cells can also be affected by radiation, they are affected a lot less than cancer cells and most of the cells recover and return to working order soon after the treatment.

Why do patients receive radiation therapy?

Patients typically undergo radiation therapy for one of two intents:

1. Curative Intent – This is the when the radiation is expected to cure the patient of their cancer by either eliminating the tumor, preventing a cancer reoccurrence, or both. In any case, radiation therapy is often combined with other forms of treatment such as chemotherapy, surgery, or other treatment plans.

2. Palliative Intent – On the other hand, radiation therapy is also given with a palliative intent, which is simply the intention to subdue the effects and suffering of cancer, not to cure it. Palliative radiation therapy is given in cases where there’s a tumor growing, for example, on patients around their brain, spine, or esophagus.

What are the common side effects of radiation therapy?

Common side effects depend on what form of radiation therapy the patient undergoes, and the specific circumstances regarding the individual’s case, but they often include:

·       Fatigue and exhaustion

·       Skin irritation

·       Diarrhea or constipation

·       Changes in taste

·       Decreased appetite

·       Nausea, vomiting, and general sickness

·       Dry mouth, thick saliva, and dry eyes

·       Hair Loss around treated area

Do the side effects outweigh the benefits?

Radiation, of course, can be more helpful in some cases over others depending on many factors. For instance, treating certain areas might not cause too many side effects whereas other areas might cause many of the common side effects. Additionally, some cancers are more sensitive to radiation than other cancers, so it will always depend.

However, if your doctor and the oncology team recommend radiation treatment for your cancer, then it means they believe the side effects will be outweighed by the benefits. But, you always have the final say, so it helps to understand the treatments and their effects as much as possible.

At the end of the day, there will always be medical experts that will be there to help you along the way. So, don’t feel alone when it comes time to determine the best form of treatment or course of action for your case. Rather, prepare yourself to help make as informed of a decision as possible or just to relieve any extra stress that you don’t need from confusion! And, of course, never hesitate if you have questions to ask your doctor or medical care provider. 

By Russell McBurnie

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