Radiation Therapy for Cancer

Treatment Overview

Radiation therapy uses high energy rays, such as X-rays, to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors in different parts of the body. It is used to treat many types of cancer.

Radiation damages the genetic material of cancer cells, which stops their growth. Radiation may also damage normal cells that are close to the cancer cells. But normal cells usually repair themselves, while the cancer cells cannot.

Side effects from radiation therapy are a problem. Usually the side effects are temporary. But some side effects may be permanent. Researchers keep looking for the lowest radiation dose that effectively kills cancer cells. And with new technology, people getting radiation therapy have fewer problems than in the past.

There are two main ways that radiation is done. When it is given from a machine outside the body, it's called external beam radiation, or EBRT. When radiation is placed inside the body, it's called internal radiation, or brachytherapy.

Other types of radiation include:

  • Systemic radiation therapy.
  • Fractionated radiation therapy.
  • Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT).
  • Proton therapy.
  • Targeted radiation therapy.

Radiation therapy may be given before surgery to shrink a tumor, such as with bladder cancer. Or it may be given during surgery or while you are getting chemotherapy. Or it may be given after other treatment, such as after surgery for breast cancer.

Radiation therapy may be given when a person with cancer is not well enough for other treatment, such as surgery. It's also used in palliative care for advanced or metastatic cancer. For example, it can relieve pain by shrinking tumors in the bones.

Why It Is Done

Radiation therapy is used to destroy cancer cells and to shrink tumors.

How Well It Works

Radiation is one of the main treatments used to kill cancer cells. But it doesn't always cure cancer. Researchers continue to study safer and more effective ways to use radiation therapy to treat cancer.

Risks

Radiation therapy may shrink a tumor, give you relief from cancer symptoms, or possibly cure cancer. But it has risks for serious side effects. Your doctor will recommend radiation therapy if the doctor thinks that the benefit you may have from this treatment is greater than the risks.

Risks of radiation therapy during and right after treatment include:

  • Fatigue.
  • Nausea with or without vomiting.
  • Skin changes, such as turning red and flaking, peeling, or shrinking (radiation dermatitis).
  • Problems that are specific to the area being treated. One example is hair loss with radiation to the head or neck. Another example is urinary problems if the lower belly is radiated.

Most of these problems will go away soon after the treatment ends. But sometimes the side effects are permanent, such as when the salivary glands are damaged.

And sometimes side effects may show up months or years after radiation therapy. These can include:

  • Skin changes (from external radiation treatments).
  • Damage to the bowels that causes diarrhea and bleeding or an obstruction.
  • Chronic bladder or rectal irritation.
  • Vaginal scarring (vaginal fibrosis).
  • Memory loss.
  • Infertility (not being able to become pregnant or father a child).
  • Harm to your lungs or heart.
  • In rare cases, a second cancer caused by exposure to radiation.

Credits

Current as of: September 8, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Douglas A. Stewart MD - Medical Oncology
Brian Leber MDCM, FRCPC - Hematology