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What is Palliative Radiotherapy?

By H. Colledge
Updated May 17, 2024
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Radiotherapy is a treatment in which radiation is used to destroy cancer cells. In cases where cancer cannot be cured, what is known as palliative radiotherapy may be carried out. Palliative radiotherapy aims to relieve symptoms. It may also be used to delay the growth of tumors and to decrease tumor size. Other palliative treatments, such as chemotherapy and analgesics, or painkilling drugs, may be given instead of, or as well as, radiotherapy, and the intention is to improve the person's quality of life.

Palliative care is offered to people suffering from incurable illnesses which are known to result in death. As well as using treatments to reduce pain and other unpleasant sensations, emotional support is given to patients and their families. The word palliative means to soothe or relieve symptoms. This type of care is often required for people with terminal cancer, and surgery, palliative chemotherapy, palliative radiotherapy and analgesics are all possible treatment options for advanced cancer control.

Radiotherapy is not used for treating every type of cancer, as not all tumors are affected by it. There are two main types of palliative radiation treatment. External radiotherapy involves directing rays at those regions of the body where cancer cells are growing. X-ray images are used to determine exactly where to target the radiation, and measurements are then made on the skin. Small marks are tattooed on the surface of the skin to line up the radiotherapy beam correctly.

Internal radiotherapy can involve the use of an implant, which is placed inside the body next to a tumor in order to shrink it. This type of palliative radiotherapy technique can sometimes be used to relieve a blocked section of gut. Sometimes, radioactive substances may be taken in the form of a drink or pill, or radioactive wires may be used to deliver doses of radiotherapy to a tumor inside the body. For cancer which is widely spread throughout the skeleton, a radioactive material may be injected into a vein. Radioactivity is then absorbed from the blood into tumor cells located within the bones.

Even though it is used to relieve discomfort, there can be side effects associated with palliative radiotherapy. Tiredness may be experienced during and after the treatment. Following radiotherapy of the head and neck, swallowing may be painful and, when the abdominal area is treated, nausea may result. Medication can be given to alleviate such side effects, should they occur.

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