What Are the Risks of Radiation Therapy for Cancer?

Radiation therapy has been used for decades as an effective way to treat many types of cancers. Learn more about the risks associated with this form of treatment.

What Are the Risks of Radiation Therapy for Cancer?

At low doses, radiation is used in x-rays to see inside the body, as is the case with x-rays of broken teeth or bones. Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other particles to kill cancer cells. A doctor who specializes in giving radiation therapy to treat cancer is called a radiation oncologist. A radiation therapy regimen or program generally consists of a specific number of treatments that are given over a certain period of time.

Not all types of radiation have been proven to cause cancer. Learn what we know about exposure to lower-energy forms of radiation and the risk of cancer. Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses beams of intense energy to kill cancer cells. In most cases, radiation therapy uses x-rays, but protons or other types of energy can also be used.

Radiation therapy is one of the most common forms of cancer treatment. It utilizes high-energy x-rays to identify and destroy cancer cells. Radiation damages cancer cells and stops them from multiplying. We asked radiation oncologist Valerie Reed, MD, D.

Radiation not only kills or slows the growth of cancer cells, but it can also affect nearby healthy cells. External-beam radiation therapies are delivered through a specialized machine directly to the cancer site. After the planning process, the radiation therapy team decides what type of radiation and what dose you will receive based on the type and stage of your cancer, your general health, and treatment goals. But when radiologists in those early years began developing leukemia, it was soon discovered that radiation could also cause cancer. If cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body, radiation therapy can kill them before they develop into new tumors.

Another type of systemic radiation therapy, called targeted radionuclide therapy, is used to treat some patients who have advanced prostate cancer or gastroenteropancreatic neuroendocrine tumor (GEP-NET). Radiation can disassemble atoms and damage the DNA of cells, leading to potentially serious side effects, including cancer. This type of radiation therapy occurs when radioactive material is placed in cancer or in surrounding tissue. When it comes to radiation and cancer risk, people often think about x-rays and gamma rays. For example, if you have lung cancer, you will receive radiation only to your chest, not to your entire body.

Unlike other cancer treatments that affect the whole body, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy is usually a local treatment. There are many different types of radiation therapy, and they all work a little differently to kill cancer cells. Specifically, it uses monoclonal antibodies, which are proteins that are attracted to very specific markers on the outside of cancer cells, to deliver radiation directly to tumors. For example, in rare circumstances, a new cancer (second primary cancer) may develop that is different from the first one treated with radiation years later. During this type of radiation therapy, detailed three-dimensional images of the cancer are created from computed tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The American Cancer Society offers programs and services to help you during and after cancer treatment. Radiation therapy has been used for decades as an effective way to treat many types of cancers. However, it's important for patients to understand that there are risks associated with this form of treatment. While it can be an effective way to target and destroy tumors, it can also cause damage to healthy cells in the area being treated. The risk of developing a second primary cancer due to radiation exposure depends on several factors such as age at exposure, dose received and type of radiation used. The risk increases with higher doses and longer exposure times.

It's important for patients considering radiation therapy for their cancer treatment to discuss these risks with their doctor so they can make an informed decision about their care.