Dr. Aabaji Thatte Seva Aur Anusandhan Sanstha
By Dr. Shruti Maheshwari
Jr. Consultant Radiation Oncology
National Cancer Institute, Nagpur
On 11 June 2020
Its normal to be apprehensive when starting a new form of medical treatment. Radiation therapy in cancer is one such form of treatment and getting to understand some common myths could help you make sound and rational decisions to combat against cancer.
External beam radiation will never make you radioactive. Radiation received is delivered to the tissues instantaneously and once the treatment machine is turned off, there are no lingering radiation. You will not be exposing your family, friends and coworkers to radiation in your normal routine of life while you will be on radiation therapy. However, if you receive internal radiation like "brachytherapy”, where radioactive substance is inserted within the body for a specified duration, you will be radioactive as long as the radioactive substance is within you. You will be admitted and kept in isolation in the hospital in a private room during internal radiation therapy.
A slight warming sensation has been reported by few patients in the irradiated region while the machine is on and radiation is being delivered.
Sensation of radiation is not felt by most patients during delivering daily treatment. Radiation therapy by itself is painless during administration, however, the treatment related side effects can be painful and uneasy. Head and neck radiation treatment can cause short-term side effects like sore throat, discomfort on swallowing and soreness of mouth. However, cancer related pain is relieved by radiation which shrinks the tumor and brings some relief.
This side effect depends on the part of the body being treated by radiation therapy. If the brain or upper abdomen region around small intestine or liver is being treated, then there is a risk of nausea and vomiting. However, measures are taken to help prevent and manage this side effect with treatment plan modifications and medications.
Hair loss from scalp is a side effect only while receiving radiation therapy to the brain. However, hair loss from scalp is a more common side effect of chemotherapy. Radiation therapy can cause hair loss in the region being treated, like in the armpit region for a patient with breast cancer receiving underarm treatment to lymph nodes.
Radiation treatment alters cellular DNA to kill cancer cells. However, this type of alteration only occurs in the person in which the mutation has occurred and the radiation effect is therefore called nonheritable. However, there is risk to the developing baby if a patient is pregnant. Hence, radiation is generally not delivered and is postponed during pregnancy. Having said that, radiation may be required in critical circumstances during pregnancy. Utmost care is taken in such cases to reduce the possibility of radiation related side effects to the developing baby.
Radiation therapy is used to treat and prevent cancer from relapsing. Only after careful considerations and multidisciplinary meetings, radiation therapy is suggested where probable benefits of treatment exceed the risks involved. If cancer does spread, it is unlikely that radiation therapy is alone responsible.