Cancer treatment: Radiation therapy explained

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shah cw.JPGBy Shalin Shah, M.D.

Regardless of where radiation fits into your cancer treatment plan, you may have questions about what you'll experience during radiation therapy.

Here are a few things you should know about radiation.

How radiation works
Receiving radiation is similar to receiving a very strong x-rays.

Advances in radiation therapy allow us to pinpoint cancerous cells with amazing accuracy.

The goal of radiation is to kill the cancerous cells to both shrink a tumor and to prevent it from growing and spreading. We try to avoid normal tissue at the same time.

Common radiation myths
Patients often ask if radiation will make them glow in the dark afterwards. The answer is no.

Also, keep in mind that if you receive external radiation therapy or even some types of internal radiation, you won't be radioactive or a hazard to anyone else.

Radiation side effects: What to expect

Most patients do have side effects during radiation, but these are often manageable with very conservative measures.

Side effects vary from patient to patient and depend on the part of the body where radiation is delivered.

After a few treatments, you may experience reddening of the skin, similar to a sunburn, at the point where the radiation was delivered. Your skin may feel a little dry and even itchy, and some patients experience minor peeling.

Patients who need radiation in their abdomen or stomach areas may get diarrhea, though this can be managed with dietary changes and over-the-counter medication.

Hair loss is uncommon during radiation treatment, unless the brain area is being treated.

During radiation therapy, some patients experience changes in taste and smell, and find that some foods they normally enjoy don't taste the same. Most patients gradually regain their old sense of taste and smell when therapy is complete.

In addition, patients who are being treated for head and neck cancers may experience a dry mouth syndrome. I always advise patients to drink water and juice frequently to help with this.

Another common side effect during radiation treatment is fatigue, which can continue for a couple of months, even after treatments are complete. While there's no real cure for fatigue, it's best to prepare to experience some drowsiness and make simple lifestyle changes to help manage it. These changes include things like getting mild exercise, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking time to rest.

Cancer can be exhausting, and patients need to take care of themselves and let others help them as much as possible. Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet can also help boost energy levels.

Every radiation patient is unique
Like all aspects of cancer care, radiation therapy differs from patient to patient, depending on the disease.  So, make sure you should discuss anything you experience with your physician. We can often recommend solutions for minimizing discomfort during this step toward survivorship.

Dr. Shalin Shah is the Center Medical Director at MD Anderson's regional care center in Sugar Land. He is interested in researching how diet, exercise and other integrative medicine strategies can improve the cure rates and side effects of treatment in cancer patients.

Watch Dr. Shah discuss other possible side effects of radiation therapy. 

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