According to Cancer Research UK, around 27 percent of patients diagnosed with cancer in England during 2013-2014 underwent radiotherapy as part of their cancer treatment
Radiotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses high-energy rays to kill cancerous tissue and stop it from growing or spreading in the body. Although this type of treatment can also damage healthy cells, these can usually repair themselves, while cancer cells can’t. Radiotherapy—which is considered the most effective cancer treatment after surgery—may be used in the early stages of cancer or after it has spread. It can be used to: try to cure the cancer completely, also known as curative radiotherapy; complement other treatments—such as chemotherapy—and make them more effective; reduce the risk of the cancer recurring after surgery; and relieve symptoms if a cure isn’t available. Discuss the suitability of this treatment with your doctor—its effectiveness greatly varies from person to person.
Different types of radiotherapy
According to Macmillan, the leading cancer charity, there are two main ways to administer radiotherapy. External-beam radiotherapy is given from outside the body by a machine, injection, capsule or drink, while internal radiotherapy consists in a radioactive material (usually metal) temporarily placed inside the body. External radiotherapy will most likely require an outpatient visit, whereas internal radiotherapy may require the patient to spend a few days in hospital. This is also the case for individuals undergoing chemotherapy at the same time, a treatment called chemoradiation. While radiotherapy sessions will take place in a hospital’s radiotherapy department, it’s important to take note that not all hospitals have these—this is because radiotherapy machines are very expensive, and the treatment must be given by highly trained staff.
Before & during treatment
A specialist cancer doctor will schedule scans to detect the position of the cancer to plan treatment. Patients may need to stop eating or drinking for a while before therapy, but this depends on individual cases. External beam radiotherapy doesn’t hurt, but individuals may find it difficult to stay in position while undergoing it. It will take place in a special room with a linear accelerator machine and may last up to 20 minutes per session. The type of internal radiotherapy patients undergo depends on their condition; this is done as an inpatient procedure.
Even though radiotherapy is effective in killing cancer cells, this sometimes comes at the expense of healthy cells. Many of its side effects can be treated or prevented and most will disappear after treatment ceases. Patients may also be asked to remain in hospital and avoid close contact with other people as a precaution as radiation from implants and injections can remain in the body for a few days. External radiotherapy, on the other hand, will not make patients radioactive as the radiation passes directly through the body. According to NHS Choices, some side effects of radiotherapy may include:
- Sore, red skin.
- Feeling tired most of the time.
- Hair loss in the area being treated.
- Feeling sick.
- Loss of appetite.
- A sore mouth.
This article was originally published in Live to 100 with Dr Hilary Jones. Read the digitial edition, here.