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Radiation therapy uses high energy rays, such as X-rays, to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. 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.
Radiation therapy may be given in these ways:
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. Radiation therapy is also used in palliative care for advanced or metastatic cancer. For example, it can relieve pain by shrinking tumors in the bones.
Hyperfractionated radiation therapy. This radiation therapy uses lower doses that are given more often, such as twice a day rather than once a day. This may increase the side effects that occur during treatment. But it may cause fewer long-term side effects.
Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT). This therapy very precisely targets a tumor anywhere in the body while minimizing damage to normal tissue around the tumor. It can be used for small to mid-sized tumors. A single treatment or several treatments are all that may be needed.
Proton therapy. This kind of radiation therapy is used mostly in clinical trials. Proton therapy uses a type of energy (protons) different from X-rays. This allows a higher amount of specifically directed radiation, which may provide more protection to nearby healthy tissues. Sometimes proton therapy is combined with X-ray therapy.
Targeted radiation therapy. This therapy uses monoclonal antibodies to deliver radiation directly to cancer cells. This treatment is used with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Recovery depends on the tumor site, the stage and grade of the cancer, and the amount of healthy tissue that is affected during treatment. Damage to normal cells during radiation therapy may cause side effects.
Skin changes are common with radiation therapy. The skin in the area of your body that is getting radiation may turn red and tender, itch, peel, or blister. Toward the end of treatment, the skin may become moist and "weepy." These effects are temporary, and the area will gradually heal when treatment is completed. You may notice a slight change in the color of the skin.
Good skin care is important during radiation therapy. And you should check with your doctor before using any deodorants, lotions, or creams on the treated area. To care for your skin:
Fatigue is a common side effect of radiation therapy. It is a sense of tiredness that doesn't seem to go away, even with rest or sleep. Some people may only have mild fatigue. For others, fatigue may be a bigger problem. It may last from 6 weeks to a year after your last radiation treatment.
Staying active can lift your mood and help you feel better. It can also help reduce problems with anemia during treatment. It's fine to be active in blocks of 10 minutes or more throughout your day. Walking with a friend can help you keep a routine.
Be patient. It can take time to fully recover. Balancing rest with activity is important. Try to match your activities to your energy levels.
Radiation to the neck or chest can irritate the lining of your throat and esophagus. It may be hard to swallow, and you may feel like you have a lump in your throat or a burning feeling in your throat or chest. You may also develop a cough.
Having both radiation and chemotherapy can make this worse. So can smoking or drinking alcohol during the time you are getting radiation therapy. These symptoms usually go away within a month after radiation treatment is completed.
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.
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 he or she 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:
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:
For more information about the side effects from radiation therapy and ways to cope with them, read "Radiation Therapy and You: Support for People With Cancer" from the National Cancer Institute. You can find this booklet online at www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/radiation-therapy-and-you.
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