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Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy particles or waves, such as X-rays, to kill cancer cells. It is one of the most common treatments for cancer and is often used as a treatment for mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. In the past, it has been difficult to treat mesothelioma with radiation because there are often multiple tumors that must be targeted. But new techniques make it possible to target mesothelioma tumors more precisely, with minimal damage to healthy tissues.

Benefits of Radiation Therapy

  • Destroys cancer cells – A specialized form of radiation therapy called adjuvant radiation therapy is used after surgery to kill any cancer cells that may have been left behind.
  • Relieves some symptoms – Radiation can be used to ease mesothelioma symptoms, such as shortness of breath and difficulty swallowing.

3 Types of Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy can be given in 3 ways: externally, internally, and systemically. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect from each type of treatment.

  1. External Beam Radiation is the most common form of radiation therapy for treating mesothelioma. It uses X-rays beamed from a machine and targeted directly at the cancer cells. The procedure is much like having a regular X-ray, but the amount of radiation received is greater. The treatment lasts just a few minutes and is painless. This type of treatment is done in a hospital outpatient clinic or cancer treatment center. The patient often receives treatment 5 days per week for 5 to 8 weeks. Spreading the sessions out in this way minimizes damage to the nearby healthy tissue while reducing side effects.
    The amount of radiation and the number of treatments a patient receives depends
    on several factors including:

    • Type of cancer
    • Size and location of the tumor(s)
    • Patient’s overall health
  1. Internal Beam Radiation (also called brachytherapy) requires a radioactive implant to be positioned inside the patient’s body at the site of the cancer or as close to it as possible. The implant can be in the form of a seed, ribbon, wire, needle, capsule, pellet, balloon, or tube. The radiation inside the implant does not travel far, so nearby healthy body tissue is hardly affected. This highly targeted method allows the doctor to use a higher dose of radiation than with external radiation treatment.
  2. Systemic Radiation Therapy uses radioactive drugs that can be injected into a vein through an IV or given by mouth in pill form. This may sound like science fiction, but these drugs are specifically designed to attach to and kill cancer cells. Since systemic radiation therapy uses radioactive substances that are unsealed, the radiation stays in the patient’s body for 1 to 2 days. Patients may be asked to stay in the hospital until their radiation levels have dropped.

Deciding which type of radiation to use depends on the kind of cancer a patient has and where it is located. Often, more than one type of radiation therapy is used.

Possible Side Effects

Side effects vary depending upon the type of radiation therapy and can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Skin sensitivity, much like a sunburn

Once treatment has been completed, the side effects typically go away. As with any treatment, your doctor can give you more information about what to expect. He or she can work with you to make adjustments to your therapy and keep any side effects manageable.