Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Doctors use several types of radiation therapy. Some people receive a combination of treatments:
External radiation: The radiation comes from a large machine outside the body. Most people go to a hospital or clinic for treatment 5 days a week for several weeks.
Internal radiation (implant radiation or brachytherapy): The radiation comes from radioactive material placed in seeds, needles, or thin plastic tubes that are put in or near the tissue. The patient usually stays in the hospital. The implants generally remain in place for several days.
Systemic radiation: The radiation comes from liquid or capsules containing radioactive material that travels throughout the body. The patient swallows the liquid or capsules or receives an injection. This type of radiation therapy can be used to treat cancer or control pain from cancer that has spread to the bone. Only a few types of cancer are currently treated in this way.
The side effects of radiation therapy depend mainly on the dose and type of radiation you receive and the part of your body that is treated. For example, radiation to your abdomen can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Skin in the treated area may become red, dry, and tender. Patients also may lose their hair in the treated area. Patients may become very tired during radiation therapy, especially in the later weeks of treatment. Resting is important, but doctors usually advise patients to try to stay as active as they can. Fortunately, most side effects go away in time. In the meantime, there are ways to reduce discomfort. If patients have a side effect that is especially severe, the doctor may suggest a break in treatment.
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References in this section:
Adapted from the National Cancer Institute's PDQ Database: http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/radiation-therapy/radiation-fact-sheet. (Accessed July 2016)