Radiation Therapy: A Basic Understanding

Posted Apr 9, 2013 | Posted in Diseases & Treatments

Radiation TherapyWhat is Radiation Therapy?

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation kills the DNA in the cancer cells which prevents them from dividing and spreading throughout the body.  There are three main types of radiation therapy:

  1. External-Beam Radiation – radiation comes from a machine outside of the body, most commonly from a linear accelerator.
  2. Internal Radiation (Brachytherapy) – radiation comes from radioactive materials placed in the body near the cancer cells.
  3. Systemic Radiation – radiation comes from a radioactive substance, such as iodine, that travels through the blood and kills cancer cells.

When Is Radiation Therapy Used?

Radiation therapy can be used by cancer patients for many reasons.  It is often used as a curative treatment, meaning it is intended to help heal the patient.  Radiation therapy can do this by eliminating a tumor or preventing cancer cells from multiplying and spreading.  It can also be used as a palliative treatment, meaning it is intended to reduce or eliminate suffering but not necessarily heal a patient.  This can be done by shrinking tumors that have spread to the brain, that are pressing on the spine, or that are near the esophagus, all of which can cause pain and discomfort for the patient.

What Are the Side Effects of Radiation Therapy?

A common misconception about radiation therapy is that every patient will always experience bad side effects.  This is not necessarily true.  There is always the possibility of negative side effects, and if choosing radiation therapy you should be aware of the risk of the following:

  • Skin irritation
  • Hair loss
  • Urinary problems
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Chronic side effects such as damage to the bowels, memory loss, or infertility

While some patients do suffer from side effects, others can go through treatment with almost no unwanted side effects.  The risk of experiencing negative side effects should not deter you from considering radiation therapy for your treatment plan. It is important to talk with your doctors, family, and friends to determine what treatment is right for you.

Learn more about radiation therapy from Dr. Charles Scarantino, radiation oncologist for Johnston Health:

Johnston Health provides radiation therapy at our cancer centers in Smithfield and Clayton.  Visit our website for more information. 

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