Therapeutic radiology uses high-energy particles or waves, such as X rays or gamma rays, to focus damaging radiation on the region of a tumor, inflicting genetic damage that kills cancerous cells. Radiation therapy damages rapidly dividing cells, mostly cancer cells but also healthy cells that reproduce quickly. This leads to side effects such as fatigue, skin changes, and loss of appetite.
Other side effects usually are related to the treatment of specific areas, such as hair loss following radiation treatment to the head. Radiation therapy can also cause a decrease in the number of white blood cells, cells that help protect the body against infection. Most side effects are short-lived, as healthy tissues recover from radiation much better than cancer cells because healthy cells repair damaged DNA more efficiently.
Many short doses of radiation therapy, instead of fewer heavier doses, can minimize side effects. The total dose and the number of treatments depend on the size, location, and type of cancer and the patient’s general health. Patients usually receive radiation therapy five days a week for five to eight weeks. Weekend rest breaks allow normal cells to recover.
Unlike surgery, radiation can destroy microscopic cancer cells that have moved into surrounding tissues. Radiation is also a safer option for older patients or those weakened from other diseases, who may not recover well from surgery. Oncologists may use radiation to shrink the tumor, making surgery feasible. For other tumors, radiation may be used following surgery. However, radiation does not always eliminate all tumor cells, and it cannot treat widespread metastases. Like surgery, radiation therapy may be used to relieve pain and discomfort, even when a cure is not likely.