Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are two of the most common treatments for cancer. Radiation beams change the composition of the tumor's DNA, causing it to shrink or die. This type of cancer treatment has fewer side effects than chemotherapy, since it only targets one area of the body. Chemotherapy, or “chemo,” uses special medications to reduce or kill cancer cells.
Radiation therapy, or “radiation,” kills these cells with high-energy beams, such as X-rays or protons. Every cancer is different, so there's no way to predict long-term survival or side effects based solely on your treatment. Some types of cancer have a high survival rate, while others can cause death in just a few months. Sometimes, the oncologist will use the two treatments together.
Although chemotherapy aims to prevent the disease from spreading, radiation focuses on particular cells. Chemotherapy can also affect the entire body, while radiation only repairs affected cells. Both treatments can cause side effects, such as hair loss, nausea, and fatigue. Before treatment, you will be asked to sign a consent form stating that your doctor has explained to you how radiation therapy can help, the possible risks, the type of radiation you should use, and other treatment options.
Many people experience fatigue, sensitive skin at the site of radiation exposure, and emotional distress during radiation therapy. Some radiation treatments (systemic radiation therapy) use radioactive substances that are given into a vein or by mouth. Radiation may help relieve problems such as pain, difficulty swallowing or breathing, or intestinal obstructions that can be caused by advanced cancer. Whether a person receives radiation therapy or chemotherapy depends on the type of cancer and how much it has spread.
Most types of radiation therapy don't reach all parts of the body, which means they aren't useful for treating cancer that has spread to many parts of the body. Sometimes radiation therapy is the only cancer treatment needed, and sometimes it is used with other types of treatment. Radiation therapy uses high-energy particles or waves, such as x-rays, gamma rays, electron beams, or protons, to kill or damage cancer cells. Radiation may make more sense for particular types of cancer that affect smaller areas.
Because chemotherapy and radiation damage both healthy and cancer cells, side effects are similar. If the area receiving radiation in your body includes the ovaries or testicles, the radiation dose may cause them to stop working (infertility) and you may not be able to have children. For example, if the cancer has returned to a part of the body that has already been treated with radiation, it may not be possible to deliver more radiation to the same site. The decision between using radiation therapy or chemotherapy depends on many factors including type of cancer and how much it has spread.
It is important to discuss with your doctor about which treatment is best for you and what are the potential risks and benefits associated with each one. Both treatments can cause side effects but understanding them can help you make an informed decision.