If you’ve ever had an X-ray taken, you’re already familiar to some degree with radiation. It powers the imaging that allows healthcare providers to peek inside your body at your teeth and bones. But radiation can also be one of the strongest weapons in a cancer treatment arsenal.
Used in high doses, radiation kills cancer cells and keeps them from replicating. This treatment can also affect normal cells, but most are able to recover. To minimize damage to healthy cells, radiation doses are spread out over time.
More than half of cancer patients receive some form of radiation therapy, sometimes in conjunction with chemotherapy and surgery. However, unlike chemotherapy, which exposes the entire body to the treatment, radiation targets only the cancer site.
Radiation treatments are given in two ways:
- External radiation comes from special equipment that targets high-energy rays directly at the cancer. Patients usually receive this therapy by going to a hospital or treatment center as an outpatient over several weeks.
- Internal radiation places radio-active material—commonly sealed in an implant—in or near the tumor. Since the radiation travels only a very short distance, it doesn’t have a big impact on healthy body tissue. An alternative method involves administering unsealed radioactive materials such as iodine either orally or by injection. The radioactive particles travel throughout the body and release radiation. Internal radiation can last from just a few days to weeks.
Radiation therapy’s common short-term side effects include:
- Fatigue. This feeling can last for several weeks after treatment ends.
- Appetite loss. Your waning interest in food may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting.
- Skin irritation. When you receive external radiation, the skin at the treatment area can become irritated and reddened, making heating pads; ice packs; and some lotions, deodorants, soaps and cosmetics off limits. Treated skin may become extra sensitive to sunlight and require protection for at least a year after treatment.
Radiation can also lead to long-term problems in treated areas, such as a reduced sperm count following pelvic radiation therapy, a fluid buildup in the arms or legs called lymphedema or even a second cancer.
While thousands of people have survived cancer thanks to radiation therapy, it’s important to ask your healthcare provider about all possible side effects so you can make an informed treatment decision.