Patient Undergoing Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy or radiotherapy is one of the oldest ways to treat different type of cancers and millions of cancer sufferers are today treated with radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays in order to kill cancerous cells and shrink tumors. Radiation therapy may be used alone or in combination with other treatments such as surgery or chemotherapy. A patient can also have more than one type of radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is frequently used to shrink tumors before surgery or it can be given after surgery in order to try to stop the cancer from coming back again. Radiation therapy may also be administered together with chemotherapy. It can help to shrink the tumor and help chemotherapy drugs work better if it is administered before or during chemotherapy. It can also be administered after chemotherapy where it can help to kill any remaining cancerous cells.

The location of mesothelioma may sometimes make it difficult to use high doses of radiation without procuring considerable damages to the surrounding organs and so some have doubts if radiation is effective in treating mesothelioma cancer. It is however quite effective when used to destroy remaining cancerous cells after surgery. It can also be effective to control symptoms and so to help patients feel less discomfort living with mesothelioma cancer. Radiation therapy can be quite effective in controlling pain and to control the accumulation of fluids in the lungs or abdomen.

Radiation therapy uses a type of energy that is called ionizing radiation that is able to damage or even destroy cancerous cells. It hampers the growth of cancerous cells by making it impossible for these cells to grow and divide.  It is a local treatment since it affects only the cells of the treated area. Cancerous cells are not killed instantly when radiation therapy is administered. It will take several days of treatment until cancerous cells will start to die. However, they will continue to die for weeks or even months after treatment is terminated.

With today's advanced technology the radiation beams can be very tightly focused. In spite of this, other non-cancerous cells surrounding the treated area of the body can also be destroyed by radiation. Although most of these normal cells are able to recover quickly, it is important to try to damage the cancerous cells without damaging the other cells of the body as far as possible. The damages to the normal cells of the body can be minimized by using a low dosage as far as possible, by spreading the treatment over time, by targeting the tumor as precisely as possible and by using certain medications that help to protect certain parts of the body. Radiation therapy has fewer side effects than other cancer treatments such as chemotherapy.

Radiation therapy can be administered in three major ways:

  • External Radiation
  • Internal Radiation
  • Systematic Radiation

The major difference of these three types of therapies is from where the radiation comes from. In the case of external radiation therapy, radiation is beamed to the location of the mesothelioma from a machine outside the body of the patient.  In the case of internal radiation or Brachytherapy, chemicals that produce radiation are put directly into the site of the mesothelioma cancer by the insertion of a thin tube into the chest or abdomen. In a systematic radiation therapy unsealed radioactive materials are let to go throughout the body. Another type of radiation therapy used primarily to treat brain tumors is stereotactic radiosurgery.

The type of radiation therapy you get depends on many factors such as the patient's general health, what other treatment you are undertaking, your medical history and other factors. The dosage of radiation administered depends on the therapeutic ratio. This ratio makes a comparison with the damages procured to the cancerous cells and the damaged procured to the normal cells. It is important to harm as much as possible the cancerous cells while causing the least harm to the normal cells. External radiation is the most common type of radiation treatment administered and a patient may also be given more than one type of radiation treatment. Different radiation treatments can be given either one after the other or at the same time. This depends on the needs of the patients as assessed by the physician.

Radiation therapy may be quite an expensive treatment. It is important to ask if your medical insurance covers such a treatment. Fortunately most medical insurances cover the expenses of radiation therapy, but this may not always be the case. During the treatment you may need to eat certain type of food in order to keep your energy level high. You will be instructed on which type of food is adequate and which are better to be avoided during the treatment. You may still be able to go to work full time at the initial stages of the treatment but this depends on the individual. After the treatment is terminated you may feel quite tired and you may decide to stop working for some time but this depends on many factors and varies from individual to individual.

Radiation therapy can have certain side effects. The extent of the side effects depends on the individual and on the other treatment one is given together with radiation therapy. Some side effects occur in the short-term (approximately less than two months after treatment) and also in the long-run (approximately after 6 months after the treatment) and some may even be permanent. However radiation therapy side effects are usually much milder than chemotherapy side effects.

Some side effects of radiation therapy include:

  • Skin rash near the treated area
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Hair Loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of fertility/ Amorrhea
  • Brain problems
  • Joint problems
  • Lymphedema
  • Secondary cancer