What Is Radiation Therapy?
Radiation therapy is a common treatment for cancer, and uses high-energy waves to destroy cancer cells. The therapy uses gamma rays, x-rays, electron beams, or protons to damage the cells.
How Does Radiation Work?
In a healthy adult, the cells divide to create new cells, but at a much slower pace than cancer cells. Each cell nucleus contains DNA. Our cells replicate this DNA to form new cells. Radiation damages this DNA inside the cells. This causes the cell to die. Doctors apply radiation just to the area that needs treatment, making it a local treatment. This helps prevent damage to healthy cells. Systemic radiation therapy uses radioactive substances, which are given to the patient through a vein or orally. Like chemotherapy, this therapy travels throughout the body, but mostly collects in the tumor.
When Would a Patient Use Radiation?
Because radiation therapy is targeted, it is not very effective for cancers that spread throughout the body. However, it can be combined with other treatments and treat many types on its own. Radiation can shrink tumors that occur from cancers that are sensitive to radiation. Sometimes doctors will administer chemotherapy first. In neoadjuvant therapy or pre-operative therapy, radiation may be used to shrink the tumor before surgery. Administering radiation after surgery is called adjuvant therapy. Also, physicians use radiation as a preventative measure. This method kills cancer cells before they turn into a tumor. Shrinking a tumor can help a relieve a person from symptoms of the cancer.
Risks and Side Effects of Radiation Therapy
Side effects do not happen to all patients receiving treatment, but typically, the effects appear the second or third week of treatment. They usually go away after treatment. As it is a local treatment, side effects usually only affect the part of the body receiving treatment. However, some common side effects include skin problems and fatigue. Women who are pregnant or trying cannot undergo radiation without risking the health of the baby. There is a slight chance that receiving radiation raises the risk of developing other types of cancer, but most doctors agree treatment outweighs this risk.