Cancer may be the scariest word that most people can imagine, and with good reason. Research in preventing and treating cancer is advancing all the time and the prognosis for most cancers continues to improve, but it may still be scary to hear that your body is producing abnormal cells. If your doctor finds or suspects cancer, he/she will likely refer a patient to a cancer specialist, or oncologist, to begin treatment quickly.
Radiation therapy is a common form of treating many types of cancers, which may sound even more terrifying than the Big C itself. Many people associate radiation with being a cause of cancer, not a treatment. However, there is a vast difference between the type of dangerous nuclear radiation that occurs in a power plant meltdown and the very carefully controlled radiation therapy used for cancer treatment. Radiation therapy harnesses X-rays, gamma rays, and other types of particles and carefully targets cancer cells. This therapy may be delivered via external machines, or through specially formulated substances to be entered directly into the body near cancerous cells. The radiation changes the DNA of the cancerous cells, causing them to either stop reproducing or to literally die. Radiation therapy is not so precise that all healthy cells escape unharmed, which may lead to some of the unpleasant side effects these patients experience. Your medical team will take into consideration that healthy cells are likely to be damaged, and make this information a factor in determining the most effective form of treatment for an individual patient. Radiation therapy may be used as a sole source of treatment, or it may be used in correlation with other treatments such as chemotherapy or surgery, or with palliative care, designed to help alleviate symptoms.
Radiation therapy may lead to acute and/or chronic side effects. Acute side effects occur during treatment, while chronic side effects may develop months or even years following treatment. Side effects may vary depending on location of the therapy, dosage, frequency of treatment, concurrent medical treatments, and just on the patient’s unique body itself. Acute side effects may include skin irritation or damage to tissues near the site of treatment. For instance, when the head or neck is being treated, the patient may experience hair loss or damage to the salivary glands. Fatigue, nausea, and vomiting are common side effects despite location of treatment. Most acute side effects disappear after radiation therapy is complete. Some chronic side effects may include fibroids, bowel damage, memory loss, or infertility.
Your medical team should always have your best interests at heart. The goals of the team should go beyond destroying the cancer, but should extend to keeping pain and side effects at a minimum. This goal should include finding the best form of treatment for your individual needs.