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Radiation Treatment for Colon Cancer

written by: Vikas Vij • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 2/16/2011

In colon cancer treatment radiation therapy is one of the critical components. Radiation may be used before or after surgery. External or internal radiation therapy may be required depending on the tumor size.

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    Radiotherapy for Colorectal Cancers

    An important colon cancer treatment, radiation therapy is among the key treatment options available to a patient. Radiotherapy is usually painless, and it may be used individually or in combination with other treatments for colon or rectal cancers. It involves the use of high-powered energy beams that are focused on the affected area to destroy malignant cells.

    Depending on the condition of the tumor, the operating doctor may decide to use radiotherapy before or after surgery. Pre-surgery radiation procedure may be used to shrink the size of the tumor in order to make the surgery more manageable. Post-surgery radiation may be necessary to destroy any remaining malignant cells that may not have been removed surgically. Sometimes radiation therapy may also be helpful in relieving the symptoms of colorectal cancers such as pressure, intestinal blockage, bleeding or pain in the affected region.

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    Key Role of Radiation Therapy

    In colon cancer treatment radiation therapy plays a crucial role, particularly in a situation where the cancerous cells are lined along an internal organ or the abdominal lining. In such a condition, it may not be possible to remove the entire malignancy surgically. Therefore, radiation therapy may be used as a follow-up to surgery in order to eliminate the remaining cancer cells. However, if the colon cancer has become metastatic, radiation may not have much effective role as a treatment option.

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    Types of Radiotherapy

    Radiation therapy procedure may be internal or external. In case of external therapy, a machine may deliver radiation to the affected area of the body. This procedure is usually conducted on an outpatient basis over a few sessions. The other option is internal radiation or brachytherapy. In this case, a tiny insertion carrying radioactive material is placed near or inside the tumor. This implant releases radiation in the target area internally. The doctor may choose between internal or external radiation options depending on the patient’s needs. In some cases, both options may also be used in combination.

    More commonly used treatment option for colon cancer is external beam radiation therapy. The treatment sessions usually take place five days a week over a period of several weeks. Internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy is more appropriate in cases where the size of the tumor is small. This treatment option is less likely to cause damage to healthy surrounding tissue because radiation travels only a very limited distance in this case.

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    Side Effects of Radiation Therapy for Colon Cancer

    Radiation therapy may have an impact on the surrounding healthy tissue along with the malignant cells. However, many of the healthy cells are likely to recover after the treatment. But the treatment is likely to cause some side effects, which may include tiredness and fatigue, feeling of nausea, lack of appetite, diarrhea and bloody stools. Some skin changes and soreness may also be seen in the affected area.

    Other side effects may include rectal or bladder irritation, and difficulties in sexual performance. Radiation may also result in inflammation of tissue and organs around the affected area. In some cases, the number of white blood cells may decrease due to radiotherapy. The patient is advised to discuss with the doctor about these side effects and check possible solutions to mitigate the problems.