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How Effective is Radiation Therapy for Cancer?

By M. West
Updated May 17, 2024
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Radiation therapy is the process of emitting x-rays, or radiation, to an area of the body in order to damage the ability of cancer cells to divide and grow. It is one of the most popular cancer treatments, along with chemotherapy and surgery. In some instances the cancer may respond quickly, while in other cases, weeks or months of the treatment may be required before a response is seen. For others, the radiation therapy for cancer does not deter the cancer growth, regardless of the duration of the treatment.

Preparation procedures may be recommended by healthcare providers to be certain the radiation targets the exact spot where it is required. A computerized tomography (CT) scan or additional x-rays might be used to pinpoint the correct area. The patient may need to undergo a simulation of radiation therapy for cancer in order to determine the most comfortable position for him or her to lie in. As it is vitally important that patients not move during treatment, the simulation period may involve planning where to best position cushions and restraints. Once the best position is ascertained, the target area on the patient's body for treatment may be marked.

During these cancer treatments, patients will lie in the planned position and a machine called a linear accelerator will emit radiation into their body. The linear accelerator will change positions throughout the session in order to emit radiation from different vantage points. The treatment will usually take place five days per week, for a duration of two to 10 weeks. Therapy sessions are normally spaced out over several weeks to permit time for healthy cells to recover between treatments. Each therapy period usually takes 10 to 30 minutes to complete.

Radiation therapy for cancer causes side effects which can hinder its success. Side effects occur because the therapy damages healthy tissues surrounding the cancer cells, as well as the diseased cells. The effects will vary, depending on the location of the cancer. Some patients will experience none, while others will be affected by several. The adverse effects are generally temporary, and will gradually go away following the end of the treatment.

Side effects of radiation therapy for cancer include fatigue, as well as hair loss and skin irritation at the targeted area. When the chest is pinpointed, the patient may experience shortness of breath, trouble in swallowing, or a cough. Radiation affecting the abdomen may cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Treatment directed toward the pelvis may produce sexual dysfunction and urinary tract problems. Radiation to the head can result in dry mouth, trouble swallowing, and changes in food taste perception.

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