Radiation therapy, which is also called radiotherapy, is a cancer treatment that uses high doses of rays to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. This treatment can also be used to relieve symptoms of cancer. Radiation therapy is especially beneficial for treating cancer cells that are hard to reach with chemotherapy or other drugs, like in the brain, testes, and ovaries.
Uses of Radiations:
At low doses, radiations are used for diagnostic purposes as in X-rays and DEXA scans, etc. However, in high doses, radiation is used to treat cancer.
What are the Types of Radiation?
Radiation therapy can be broadly classified into two types.
External Beam Radiation Therapy:
External radiation therapy is the most common type of radiation. In which high beam or high energy rays are delivered/ targeted to a specific part of the body or tumor. This is done with the help of a machine called a linear simulator. This type of radiation is given to cancer like head, neck, lung, and breast cancer. Furthermore, it is also used in patients undergoing allogenic bone marrow transplant known as total body irradiation. to achieve long remission purposes and prevent rejection of implanted marrow. External beam radiation has further many types.
Internal Radiation Therapy (Brachytherapy):
- In this type, radiation is given by placing a radioactive material called an implant inside the body. It is placed near the tumor to shrink it or to kill cancer cells. This type of radiation is given in liquid form or in the form of a capsule. It has further two types.
- Intra-cavity: In this type, the radioactive material is placed in a body cavity. e.g. in the rectum or in the uterus.
- Interstitial: In this type the radioactive material is placed near the tumor.
What are the side effects of radiation therapy?
Just like other medicine or chemotherapy radiation therapy also causes side effects. Following are some general side effects of radiation therapy.
Nausea and Vomiting:
Like chemotherapy drugs, radiation therapy also destroys some normal cells. However, if the patient has been treated for stomach or abdomen cancer there will be problems with nausea and vomiting.
skin discoloration is a main side effect of radiation therapy. As radiation crosses the skin and destroys the skin cells.
Radiation therapy damages cells in the oral mucosa which leads to mucositis /oral ulcers. Mucositis after radiation therapy especially in total body irradiation is very severe that is of grade III and grade IV, Which alters nutrition of patients.
Hypotension (low blood pressure):
Low oral intake due to nausea, vomiting, and oral ulcers patient may lead to low blood pressure and low energy.
- Low white blood Cells. Radiation therapy also destroys cells in the bone marrow which may lead to low white cell count, platelets, and hemoglobin which leads patients to different infections and risk for bleeding.
- Dizziness / Lethargy: Dizziness is more common in patients in whom radiation is given to the head/brain or spinal cord. Because radiation kills cancer cells as well as normal cells.
- Hair Fall (alopecia): Hair fall is common in areas that are exposed to radiation. Moreover is very common if radiation is done for neck and head cancer. Hair loss is temporary and comes back after 3 to 6 months of completion of treatment. it could be permanent in patients who have been treated with higher doses of radiation.
- Sexual Dysfunction: Radiation can damage both male and female gonads which could lead to low sperm and ovum count, Dysfunction with sexual activity will happen
- Problem with Infertility. Permanent damage to gonads in both male and female patients leads to infertility.
- Weight Loss: Radiations destroy healthy cells as well, with side effects like mouth ulcers, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea collectively leading to overall weight loss.
How to reduce the Side Effects of Radiation Therapy?
As different patients suffer different side effects but some common side effects can be managed by following tips.
Maintain good hydration in radiation therapy :
Before going to the radiation session have more and more fluids and maintain good hydration. Also, have a water bottle with you of all the types while going to a hospital visit.
- Have a good sleep: Sleep well during the treatment course, which will help in regenerating your body cells and reduce anxiety.
- Maintain good oral hygiene:
- maintaining good oral hygiene helps in reducing mouth ulcers. Use a good quality mouthwash containing anti-fungal in like magic mouthwash which is beneficial also in treating mouth ulcers.
- Take a lot of rest: Avoid energy-consuming activities like washing clothes, cleaning the house, jogging, or using gymnastics, which will consume your energy .you, can have easy and simple cooking in your kitchen, and can have a simple walk on the lawn.
- Mind divert activities: You can busy yourself with a mind diversion activity like reading an interesting storybook or watching a good documentary, drama, or film.
- Personal hygiene: Maintains good personal hygiene to avoid getting oral or dental infections.
- Avoid sexual contact with the partner.
- Cover your skin while going into the sun. Direct exposure to the sun can lead to skin damage as skin becomes sensitive after radiation therapy.
- Avoid drinking alcohol at least till the radiation course completion.
- Avoid using medicated lotions on the skin, use simple baby shampoos to wash hair, and avoid using strong deodorants. Ask your healthcare professional before using any skin treatment.
- Family and community support:
- Family and friends’ support is very necessary for the fast recovery of patients, so be with people who give you good moral support, Be in contact with patients getting the same treatment so you will get support in managing side effects by home remedies or other tips.
Special Precautions after Receiving Radiations?
Avoid contact with pregnant ladies and children: as in external radiation there are no risks at all but take some precautions to keep safe other family members. In case you have internal radiation like iodine therapy, it takes some time to flush out from the body, so special precautions are very important. Your healthcare provider will guide you for special precautions.
Drink a lot of Fluids: Drinking fluid will help in flushing out the radioactive material.
Use an Isolated Toilet at home: if possible, use a separate toilet, If there is a common toilet then flush it twice or thrice after use.
Separate your Laundry: Keep your clothes, towels, and underwear separate from the laundry of other family members.
Use Separate Utensils:
Avoid using combined utensils with other family members as radiation may be excreted through saliva as well.
Avoid Family Gatherings:
Avoid attending large gatherings or family events as patients’ immunity is compromised after radiation, making them more susceptible to infections.
Avoid Sun Exposure/Sun Bath:
After undergoing radiation therapy, a patient’s skin becomes highly sensitive. As a result, direct exposure to sunlight should be avoided as it can easily damage the skin and lead to dehydration.
Is it safe to be around someone receiving radiation?
Patients are not allowed to have anyone in the radiation room with them, not even their therapist.
Is Radiation Therapy Painful?
Getting radiation is not a painful procedure, a machine just like a CT scan will move around your body and target the part for radiation and deliver radiation, and even you will not feel the radiation time delivery
Radiation therapy, like any other medical treatment, can cause side effects. But adopting healthy habits such as eating a balanced diet, maintaining an exercise routine, and engaging in other healthy activities can mitigate these side effects. Furthermore, having a dependable support system of family and friends can provide emotional support and contribute to a faster recovery from the therapy’s effects.