Radiation therapy is a localized treatment used to directly kill cancer cells, lessening symptoms or directly fighting the disease.
Radiation therapy is one of the oldest and most frequently prescribed treatments for a variety of cancers, including mesothelioma. The American Cancer Society reports that about 60% of all cancer patients receive some form of radiation therapy. Somewhat less frightening than chemotherapy and surgery, radiation may be prescribed for the treatment of the disease itself or to help lessen the troublesome symptoms of the cancer.
How Does Radiation Therapy Work?
High-dose radiation kills cancerous cells that are found in the body of a person suffering from cancer. Technically, the radiation destroys cancer cells at the molecular level and keeps them from reproducing. It is especially adept at killing cells that replicate quickly, such as those associated with mesothelioma.
Unlike chemotherapy, however, mesothelioma radiation therapy is a localized treatment which kills only the cells in the area to which the radiation is applied. It is not helpful in treating cancer which has metastasized – or spread to other parts of the body.
Types of Radiation Therapy
Traditionally, there have been two types of radiation therapy available to cancer patients.
- External beam radiation– The most common form of radiation therapy, external beam radiation is achieved by means of an x-ray machine which aims radioactive waves at the tumor or affected portion of the body. The procedure is fairly quick and is accomplished on an outpatient basis. How many radiation treatments a patient requires will depend on individual cases and include factors such as stage of the disease and size and location of the tumor.
- Internal radiation– Also known as brachytherapy, this type of radiation involves placing a radioactive implant into the cancerous tissue. It allows for the implementation of higher doses in a single treatment or is suggested for patients with tumors that are located deep inside the body and are unable to be reached by traditional external beam radiation. Patients must be admitted to the hospital for internal radiation, and because exposure to the patient may cause danger to others due to radioactivity, visitors will be limited for the first few days. Implants such as these may be temporary or permanent.
Radiation and Mesothelioma
Some mesothelioma patients are not candidates for radiation therapy, while the treatment may be, in fact, preferable for others. If also may be offered in tandem with other treatments, like surgery or chemotherapy.
While radiation therapy will not cure mesothelioma, doctors often suggest it as a palliative measure in order to relieve some of the uncomfortable side effects of the disease. Radiation therapy has proven quite successful in relieving pain as well as reducing instances of shortness of breath in mesothelioma patients.
Oncologists experienced in the treatment of mesothelioma will be able to determine if and how you might benefit from radiation therapy. If it is prescribed for you or a loved one, it is essential to stick to the schedule so that the patient receives the most benefit from the treatment.
What to Expect During Radiation Therapy
Once your doctor has determined that you are a candidate for external radiation therapy, he/she will suggest an outpatient facility where you can receive the treatment. If internal radiation therapy is in order, you may be sent to a consult with a surgeon before you receive the treatment. He/she will set up a schedule of treatments as well. The schedule may involve days, weeks, or even months of radiation therapy.
While you will may experience some side effects from surgery after brachytherapy as well as some traditional radiation therapy side effects, the side effects of external radiation are quite mild compared to most other cancer therapies. The downside of radiation is that it can also destroy healthy cells along with cancerous cells. However, these cells will eventually begin to repair themselves.
Side Effects of Radiation Therapy
The most common side effects of radiation therapy are:
- Extreme fatigue
- Redness near the treated area
- Dry mouth
- Loss of appetite
- Hair loss (infrequent)
- Decrease in white blood cells (leaving patient prone to infection)