Radiotherapy or radiation therapy is a medical procedure to treat cancer. The purpose of radiotherapy is to kill cancer cells, stop the growth and spread of cancer cells, and prevent cancer recurrence.
Radiotherapy can be given through X-ray exposure, implants in the body, as well as through oral drugs and injections. For maximum results, radiotherapy is often used in conjunction with chemotherapy and surgical removal of cancer.
Please note, although it can eradicate and inhibit the growth of cancer cells, radiotherapy can also damage healthy cells. However, these side effects are generally not permanent. To minimize these side effects, radiotherapy needs to be done carefully or only on areas of the body that are affected by cancer.
Indications for Radiotherapy
The doctor will consider radiotherapy because of the following goals:
- Relieves symptoms of advanced cancer
- Shrinking tumor size before surgical procedure
- Treating cancer, either as a single treatment or in combination with other treatments, such as chemotherapy
- Kills and cleans cancer cells after surgery to remove cancer, so cancer doesn’t come back
Radiotherapy can not be done in all conditions, especially during pregnancy. Pregnant women should not undergo radiotherapy, because this therapy can be fatal to the fetus in the womb. Therefore, female patients who are planning to undergo radiation therapy are advised to use contraception when having sex.
Just like female patients, male patients are also recommended to use contraception when having sex during radiotherapy. In certain cases, male patients are advised to continue to use contraceptives during sex until several months after radiotherapy is completed.
Preparation for Radioterapi
Before radiotherapy is performed, the doctor will conduct a series of examinations to ensure whether this procedure is safe and appropriate, according to the patient’s condition. After that, the doctor will determine the dose and frequency of radiotherapy, according to the type and stage of cancer experienced by the patient.
The doctor will also perform a radiation simulation which consists of several stages, as described below:
- The patient is asked to lie down and determine a comfortable position so that the radiotherapy procedure can run smoothly.
- The doctor will provide a pillow and bind the patient’s body so that it does not change position during radiotherapy.
- The doctor will perform a CT scan to determine which parts of the body will receive radiation.
- The doctor will determine the type of radiotherapy and how many times the therapy will be carried out, according to the results of the examination.
- The doctor will mark the patient’s body parts that will get exposure to radiation waves.
- After all the stages above are completed, radiotherapy is ready to be carried out.
There are three types of radiotherapy that are often used to treat cancer. Its application also varies, depending on the patient’s condition and the size and type of cancer. The following are the types of radiotherapy in question and their explanations:
External radiotherapy is a type of radiation therapy that is performed by directing X-rays or proton beams to areas of the body that are affected by cancer. This therapy does not cause pain and patients can generally go home immediately after the treatment is completed.
External radiotherapy usually lasts 10–30 minutes per session. This therapy can be done twice a week.
Internal radiotherapy or brachytherapy is done by inserting a radioactive implant into the patient’s body, precisely near the location of the growth of cancer cells. These implants can be left in the body for several days or permanently, depending on the type of cancer the patient has.
In cases where the implant is left permanently in the body, there is no need to worry because the radiation level from the implant will decrease over time.
Systemic radiotherapy is a type of radiation therapy that is done by introducing drugs into the patient’s body. This medication can be swallowed by the patient or injected into a vein.
Systemic radiotherapy or radioisotope therapy is often used in patients with thyroid cancer and prostate cancer. This type of radiotherapy requires the patient to be hospitalized for a longer time.
The doctor will monitor the patient’s condition while the patient is undergoing radiation therapy. The doctor will also run a series of examinations to determine the patient’s response to therapy. If the patient experiences side effects, the doctor will give drugs to relieve these side effects.
Please note, the effectiveness of radiotherapy can vary in each patient. Some patients have to undergo radiotherapy for weeks or months for results to be seen.
Side Effects of Radiotherapy
Like other types of treatment, radiotherapy also has the potential to cause a number of side effects. Usually, these side effects will go away after radiotherapy ends. Some of the side effects of radiotherapy in question are:
- Itchy, dry and red skin that generally appears 1-2 weeks after therapy
- Hair loss in the treated body part, generally occurs 2-3 weeks after therapy
- Diarrhea, which usually appears a few days after radiotherapy
- Lymphedema , which can cause pain and swelling in the legs
- Easy fatigue, which can last for months after therapy
- Stiffness, pain and swelling in the muscles and joints in the treated area
- Loss of appetite, which causes weight loss
- Psychological disorders, such as anxiety, stress, frustration or depression
- Sores in the mouth or canker sores, which may be accompanied by dry mouth, bad breath, and an uncomfortable feeling in the mouth when eating, drinking or talking
- Sexual and fertility disorders, including decreased sex drive, erectile dysfunction in men and vaginal dryness in women
- Weakened immune system due to reduced white blood cell count