Your Quick Guide to Radiation Therapy and Its Risks
As the leading cause of death in Singapore, cancer has impacted its society and healthcare system. According to the Singapore Cancer Registry, data shows diagnoses have increased sixfold from 12,000 from 1968 to 1972 to 70,000 between 2013 and 2017.
As an answer to the rise in cases, cancer treatment centres in Singapore provide various treatment methods to treat different types of cancer, such as colon, lung, breast, and prostate cancer, to name a few.
Also known as radiotherapy, radiation therapy is a common treatment for cancer. Whether you wish to learn more about this treatment option for yourself or someone you know, we hope this quick guide can help to shed some light on the treatment and the risks that come with it.
What is radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy employs high-energy electromagnetic radiation, such as X-rays and gamma rays, to eradicate or damage cancer cells to prevent them from metastasizing.
The process of being treated with radiation therapy involves several processes. A brief overview is as follows:
1. Before treatment starts, patients shall undergo a CT scan during the planning stage.
2. Radiographers target the areas that need treatment and the places to avoid. The radiation oncologist will also consider the patient’s type of cancer, its position in the body, and how far the radiation needs to travel into the body. They will then make ink marks on the body in the treatment area.
3. The oncology team will decide the final details of the patient’s treatment plan, which could take a few days to weeks before they start treatment.
What are the types of radiation therapy?
There are three ways in which radiation therapy can be carried out. The first is through external radiation, in which a special machine, such as a linear accelerator, administers the dosage and the radiation is directed only at specific parts of the body. But not to worry, patients exposed to this technique never become radioactive.
Second is internal radiation therapy, where the radiation source is directly placed inside the body as close as possible to the cancer cells. The oncologist inserts radioactive materials at the site of the cancer, which can be a temporary or permanent placement, that will release radiation slowly over a few months.
Most people don’t know about this, but there is a third method, systemic radiation. It either requires the patient to ingest radioactive drugs or have it injected directly into their veins. The radioactive material targets cancer cells and will leave the body through sweat, saliva and urine – making these fluids radioactive.
Safety precautions after radiation therapy
Patients may be concerned about being radioactive during or after systemic radiation treatment, so it is important to follow the exact safety instructions given by the cancer care team for patient and family safety.
For instance, patients may be told to use separate utensils and towels, keep a distance away from others, and wash laundry separately from the rest of the household. Thus, depending on the type of radiation the patient receives, their safety precautions will be given accordingly to keep radiation exposure to the people around them as limited as possible.
What are the goals of radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy aims to cure, control, or alleviate the symptoms of cancer. Patients can be treated with radiation therapy alone, or a combination with other treatments, such as chemotherapy.
It also helps to destroy cancer cells and slow down tumour growth while limiting the harm to surrounding health tissues. When used with other therapies or after surgery, it will target the remaining cancer cells after the initial treatment.
For cases in which cancer has progressed, controlling the growth rate, or slowing down the process is the next possible step. Severe instances of widespread metastization of cancer cells can no longer be cured and alleviating the symptoms is the only solution. This usually means shrinking the tumours to reduce the patient’s pain, relieve symptoms and improve their quality of life.
What are the side effects?
Side effects exist for radiation therapy and are mostly only found in the areas being treated. The most common side effect is fatigue, which is experienced by anyone undergoing the procedure. The intensity varies with each person and can be decreased by taking short naps and performing light exercise.
A few of the most common side effects are:
- Hair loss
- Skin changes
Specific side effects also occur depending on the areas being treated, such as tenderness in the breast, or headaches if the treated area is the brain.
Some side effects also include those that are defined as acute and chronic (long-term). Acute side effects happen while the patient is receiving the treatment while chronic side effects unfortunately may take months or even years to develop and fully appear.
Since the risk of these side effects directly corresponds to the areas treated and radiation dose, patients need to ensure that careful treatment planning is done with their doctor. This also helps them to find out more about the possible side effects for their type of radiation therapy.
For patients who have completed their treatment, they may still need to attend follow-up appointments and have regular check-ups for the rest of their recovery process. The doctor will also assess how well the radiation therapy has worked and discuss what the patient can do to reduce the risk of cancer recurring and its symptoms.
Cancer recurrence can develop in the same place it started or in a new part of your body. It can come back at least a year after completion of cancer therapy.
Symptoms may vary depending on the location, such as persistent cough or bone pain – but there are also general non-specific symptoms one can look out for including fatigue and unintentional weight loss.
To lower the risk of cancer, some recommendations include making lifestyle changes like exercising regularly, quitting smoking, limiting alcohol intake, and reducing the consumption of red or processed meat.
Early prevention and detection of diseases are always advised regarding one’s health, especially cancer. As a cancer diagnosis and treatment centre in Singapore, International Cancer Specialists (ICS) provides competent and compassionate care with our one-stop service to coordinate your appointments, consultations, and therapies smoothly. Book your appointment with ICS for cancer screening tests, treatment services, cancer treatment and management, and more.