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Radiotherapy, also referred to as radiation therapy, is a common cancer treatment method. It uses high-energy waves or particles, such as gamma rays, electron rays, x-rays, or protons, to damage or destroy cancer cells. Though this treatment is highly effective, there are side effects of radiotherapy that patients should know about.
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How Does Radiotherapy Work to Treat Cancer?
Radiation therapy damages and kills cancer cells by delivering high doses of radiation therapy to them. It prevents the cancer cell from dividing, growing, and spreading by breaking down a part of the DNA molecule found inside cancer cells. Healthy cells close to the cancer cells are sometimes affected by radiotherapy, but in most cases will fully recover.
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Possible Radiotherapy Side Effects
The side effects of radiotherapy vary from patient to patient, as does their severity and frequency. The main side effects include:
Infection and Blood Count Falls: When a patient is receiving radiotherapy, their blood counts can drop below what is normal. The white blood cells are most often affected. Infections can develop when a patients does not have enough white blood cells. Infections and fevers may require additional treatment. Treatment may be necessary to increase white blood cell counts. If platelets or red blood cells drop, a transfusion may be necessary.
Feeling Sick: When patients are receiving radiation in their abdominal area, they can experience nausea and vomiting. This side effect can be greatly relieved for most patients and eliminated for some with anti-emetic medications. Patients will take this medication prior to a radiotherapy treatment session.
Mouth Soreness: Those receiving radiotherapy in the neck and surrounding area, may experience mouth soreness a few weeks into their treatment. Pain when swallowing or trouble swallowing can also occur. Pain medications and mashed foods can help with this. This side effect is always temporary and will subside after the patient is done with treatment.
Sore Skin: When radiotherapy is targeting the chest or neck they can experience some skin soreness. In most cases, treating the sore skin will not be necessary. In the less common cases where it becomes severe, radiotherapy may have to be stopped for a few days to let the skin recover.
Appetite and Taste Changes: Many patients will develop appetite and taste changes as they go through treatment. These two side effects typically subside after treatment is done. Patients should make sure to get adequate amounts of fluid and follow a healthy diet.
Fatigue: Fatigue is a very common side effect of radiotherapy. Eating a healthy diet, regular light exercise, and plenty of sleep and rest can help alleviate fatigue.
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Patients Against Lymphoma. (2004). Side Effects Radiotherapy-Related. Retrieved on July 23, 2010 from Patients Against Lymphoma: http://www.lymphomation.org/side-effect-radiation.htm
American Cancer Society. (2010). Understanding Radiation Therapy. Retrieved on July 23, 2010 from the American Cancer Society: http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/TreatmentsandSideEffects/TreatmentTypes/Radiation/UnderstandingRadiationTherapyAGuideforPatientsandFamilies/understanding-radiation-therapy-intro
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Radiation Therapy: Dina Wakulchik – Wikimedia Commons