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What to Expect During Radiation Therapy in Cancer Treatment

Radiation therapy kills cancer cells but also causes side effects. Find out what remedies ease post-therapy discomfort.

Woman lying face up while undergoing radiation therapy

Experts estimate the world will see 29.5 million new cancer cases in 2040. About half of cancer diagnoses will need at least one course of radiation therapy, an integral part of most cancer treatments that can save millions of lives. 

Read on to learn more about the two types of radiotherapy and the steps to alleviate the side effects.

Woman in patient gown signing a consent form while sitting up in bed
You have to give your consent before obtaining radiation therapy.

Types of Radiation Therapy 

Radiation therapy uses high-energy waves or particles – protons, electron beams, gamma, or X-rays – to precisely target and destroy cancerous cells. It can be administered in two ways: external beam and internal radiation. 

External beam radiation therapy 

The most common type of radiotherapy is the external beam, which delivers radiation from a machine. Each session takes approximately 15 minutes and continues over five consecutive days weekly. However, depending on your treatment plan, it can span three to nine weeks. 

External beam radiation targets a tumour and can damage its surrounding healthy tissues. So, you’re given a two-day break after each weekly treatment cycle to allow your body time to heal. 

Internal radiation therapy 

According to the National Cancer Institute, internal radiation therapy has two forms, brachytherapy and systemic therapy. 

Brachytherapy seals a radioactive source in a temporary or permanent implant, placing it inside or near the tumour in your body. Systemic therapy provides radioactive material via a liquid substance delivered to the bloodstream by an IV line or injection.

The healthcare provider will provide guidelines to protect your loved ones from exposure. Adherence to these guidelines can stop when a temporary implant is removed, or a permanent implant loses its radioactivity.

Possible Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

Woman grimacing as she holds her left cheek with her left hand and a glass of water in her right while sitting on a sofa
Jaw stiffness and tooth decay are notable after-effects of radiation therapy.

Radiotherapy treatment’s side effects will differ from one person to another based on these factors. 

  • Treatment dosage 
  • Overall state of health  
  • Area of the body that’s being treated 
  • Type of cancer  

During radiation therapy, you will likely experience fatigue and skin changes like dryness, itching, blistering, or peeling. You may also feel discomfort and soreness in the areas of your body targeted by radiation. 

Side effects of radiotherapy are:

How to Cope with Radiation Therapy’s Side Effects 

Practising healthy habits and changing your lifestyle can help your body cope with radiation therapy side effects. These include:  

  • Getting as much rest as possible  
  • Eating a nutritious and balanced diet 
  • Using adhesive paper tape to bandage sensitive skin, but not on the treated skin 
  • Wearing loose, soft cotton clothes instead of tight-fitting clothes 
  • Using only lukewarm water and mild soap when showering 
  • Not applying heat or cold directly on the treatment area, such as heating pads, heat lamps, or ice packs 
  • Avoiding exposing areas of treated skin to sunlight 
  • Consulting your doctor before using skincare products 
  • Refraining from rubbing or scrubbing areas of treated skin 

Alternative Medicine to Support Radiation Therapy 

Real Health Medical’s Chief Physician Chu I Ta says Excess Heat therapy in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can help relieve the side effects of radiation therapy.

“The pathological terms for the side effects of radiation therapy are Heat-Toxic and Evil Fire. These stem from damage to your qi (vital energy, 气), blood (xue, 血), and bodily fluids (jin ye, 津液). The objective of alternative treatment is to relieve the side effects by increasing your sensitivity to and reducing the toxicity of radiation therapy.” 

TCM Physician Chu I Ta

Herbal remedies to improve radiation therapy’s potency 

Herbs and herbal formulas that improve blood circulation and remove Stasis can serve as supplementary treatments. These may help increase radiotherapy’s sensitivity to topical cancer cells, potentially enhancing its efficacy.

These herbs and formulas are:  

panax notoginseng on black and brown plate
Panax notoginseng is one of the herbs recommended to improve the effectiveness of radiation therapy.

Nourishing yin fluid ingredients can help you complete a radiation therapy cycle by clearing Heat and removing toxins from the body. Here are a few options: 

  • Chinese figwort (xuan shen, 玄参) 
  • Chinese goldthread (huang lian, 黄连) 
  • Chinese skullcap (huang qin, 黄芩) 
  • Cortex Phellodendri (huang bai, 黄柏) 
  • Lithospermum root (zi cao, 紫草) 

Herbal remedies to suppress radiotherapy’s toxicity 

Radiation therapy impairs the production of bone marrow and blood tissues – plasma, red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. It can also weaken your body’s immunity.

These herbs and herbal formulas tonify blood and qi to help reduce the toxicity of the therapy

  • Tortoise shell glue (gui jia jiao, 龟甲胶) 
  • Jujubes (da zao, 大枣) 

These herbs help nourish Kidney and Liver yin.

  • Goji berries (gou qi zi, 枸杞子) 
  • Glossy Privet Fruit (nu shen zi, 女贞子) 
  • Solomon’s seal (huang jing, 黄精) 
  • Malaytea Scurfpea fruit (bu gu zhi, 补骨脂) 

Leading a fulfilling life despite cancer is more than possible with radiation therapy. This treatment improves your well-being and increases your chances of cancer remission. Talk to your doctor and a TCM practitioner about how best to use alternative remedies to complement your radiotherapy.

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Radiation in Healthcare: Nuclear Medicine. [online] [Accessed 6 October 2022] 
  2. American Cancer Society. How Radiation Therapy Is Used to Treat Cancer. [online] [Accessed 6 October 2022] 
  3. American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). 2022. What to Expect When Having Radiation Therapy. [online] [Accessed 6 October 2022] 
  4. American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). 2022. Side Effects of Radiation Therapy. [online] [Accessed 6 October 2022] 
  5. Rogel Cancer Center – University of Michigan Health. How to Cope with the Side Effects of Radiation Therapy. [online] [Accessed 6 October 2022] 
  6. JCO Global Oncology. 2021. Global Radiotherapy: Current Status and Future Directions—White Paper. [online] [Accessed 7 December 2022]
  7. National Cancer Institute. 2019. Radiation Therapy for Cancer. [online] [Accessed 7 December 2022]

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