Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses concentrated radiation beams to kill cancer cells. The most common type of radiation is external beam radiation, that involves a machine that directs high energy beam radiation for nearly all types of cancers.

Why is Radiation therapy done?

Radiation therapy is an important tool and it is done along with surgery and chemotherapy to effectively kill cancer cells.

Radiation therapy cannot differentiate between cancer cells and healthy cells, so it will most likely kill healthy cells too. Although, that effect is temporary. The non-cancerous cells have the ability to recover from the radiation. To minimize the effects of radiation on the body, therapy is only targeted to specific points in the body.

Radiation therapy can be used during different stages of cancer treatment and for different outcomes. Radiation therapy can be used:

  • To alleviate symptoms in advanced, late-stage cancer
  • As the primary treatment for cancer
  • In conjunction with other cancer treatments
  • To shrink a tumor before surgery
  • To kill any remaining cancer cells after surgery

What are the types of Radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is of two types:

  • External Beam Radiation Therapy (Teletherapy): Radiation is delivered from an external source from outside the body and is directed at the cancer site. Depending upon tumor location, different levels of radiation are used for external beam therapy. Low-energy radiation does not penetrate very deeply into the body and is used mainly to treat surface tumors such as skin cancer.
  • Internal Radiation Therapy (Brachytherapy): This involves placing radiation as close to the tumor as possible, sometimes even inside the tumor. The radioactive sources or isotopes are in the form of wires, seeds (or molds), or rods. This technique is particularly effective in treating cancers of the cervix, uterus, vagina, rectum, eye, and certain head and neck cancers. It is also occasionally used to treat cancers of the breast, brain, skin, anus, esophagus, lung, bladder, and prostate.

Risks of Radiation therapy:

Even though this treatment is an important part of treating cancer, it can also have adverse side-effects on the body:

  • Diarrhea
  • Dry mouth
  • Ear aches
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Blistering of skin
  • Swelling
  • Sore throat
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Vomiting
  • Painful urination
  • Itching
  • Infertility
  • Joint problems
  • Mouth problems
  • Gastro intestinal problems
  • Fistula formation – Example: Fistula between intestine and vagina

How is Radiation therapy done?

There are usually five sessions a week, lasting from one to ten weeks depending on the cancer. Each session usually is of 10 to 30 minutes each. Normally, the patient is given two days of rest each week to help him recuperate and restore the healthy cells.

Radiation therapy involves the use of a linear accelerator machine, which directs radiation at the appropriate spot. Protective covers are used to shield other body parts from the radiation. This is a painless procedure and patient is able to communicate with your team via an intercom, if needed.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), about half of all people with cancer receive radiation therapy. If you experience any side-effects, discuss them with your doctor in your next session. They will be able to provide you with the best possible treatment do deal with them.

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