Radiation therapy involves the use of carefully targeted doses of x-rays or other high-energy rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tambours. While given as a preventive measure for early cases of cancer, it is also administered as a palliative treatment for pain relief in advanced cases. Radiotherapy may be used alone or together with surgery or chemotherapy.
Radiotherapy can be given in two ways, either as external beam radiotherapy (external radiotherapy) or as a radioactive implant (internal radiotherapy).
External Radiotherapy: This treatment involves the high energy rays being directed to the cancer by various machines which include cobalt 60, linear accelerator and betatron. The dosage and duration of the treatment depend on the patient's weight andgeneral health, the type, size and location of the tumor and whether surgery and chemotherapy have been used or are planned in the future. A typical course lasts 4 to 6 weeks with treatment for 5 days per week and a weekend break to allow time for normal cells to recover and rebuild. The attending physician checks the patient's progress to measure the total radiation delivered.
Radiotherapy is not at all painful. It is very similar to a x-ray but takes a little longer. It is important for the patient to remain still during the process, since radiotherapy must be directed accurately at the same place each time. For this reason the treatment sessions are preceded by a marking session during which the exact treatment spot or area is identified. Once the area for radiation has been determined, it is marked either with tattoo marks or indelible ink to guarantee that the identical area is treated every time. In some cases a shell or prosthesis may be needed to protect adjacent areas during radiation and the marks may be made on the shell. During the treatment, which takes only a few seconds, the patient is alone in the treatment room, but constantly monitored by the radiographer through a viewing window or on a TV monitor.
Internal Radiotherapy: This kind of Radiation Therapy is given by inserting radioactive needles or wires into the tumor while the patient is under general anesthesia. Over a few days, a high dose of radiotherapy is given directly to the tumor from the inside rather than a lower daily dose from the external source over a longer period of time.
The treatment must be administered as an in-patient procedure in a hospital during which time, the patient is kept in isolation. To avoid the risk of exposure to radiation, visitors, doctors and nurses may only visit for a short period of time. Pregnant women and children should not visit at all. Treatment takes a few days after which the needles are removed.
Risks and Side Effects: Common side effects include any or all of the following:
Fatigue: The body uses a lot of energy during treatment due to stress, regular trips to hospital and the repair work to normal cells exposed to radiation. The best way to handle fatigue is to limit activities and increase sleep. Good nutrition is also very important.
Skin Problems: The skin in the treatment area frequently becomes dry, itchy, darkened, red or tanned. Do not rub, scratch or scrub this skin. Ask the doctor for a lotion which will not interfere with treatment. Protect the skin from the sun.
Hair Loss: Hair loss generally occurs in the area of treatment. The hair will regrow when therapy is complete.
Loss of Appetite: This may be caused by nausea, stomach pain, and change in taste and difficulties in swallowing. Maintain a balanced diet and eat whenever possible. A soft diet is best and plenty of nourishing liquids like milk, soup and coconut water. Smoking, drinking alcohol and eating hot, spicy food should be avoided.
Digestive Tract Problems: Upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea and constipation have been observed when radiation is being delivered to the lower abdominal area. Most of these problems can be controlled with medication, which the doctor will prescribe.
Effect on Sexual and Reproductive Function: Radiation therapy, when applied to reproductive organs can cause a decrease in the number of sperm or viable ova, reducing the ability to fertilise. There may be a possible decrease in sexual desire and impotence in men.
Lymphodema: The swelling of the arm due to damaged axillary's lymphatic vessels either by surgery or radiation causes the lymph to collect in the lower arm. Lack of vessels and the force of gravity make it difficult to pump the fluid back into circulation causing swelling and discomfort. Take special care to avoid infection and injury to the affected arm.
As with chemotherapy, it should be emphasized that side effects vary from patient to patient and range from none to very serious. Most effects are temporary and disappear once treatment is completed.