What exactly is radiation, and why is it recommended?

By Ariel E Pollock, MD, Radiation Oncologist

Redefining common perceptions of radiation

“Radiation” is a scary word to a lot of people. People grow up learning that radiation is harmful to the body and it is something that should be avoided. They learned about the Chernobyl nuclear accident and then saw the HBO miniseries about the events that took place and the severe effects of acute radiation exposure.

Then, they get cancer and are told they will require or are recommended for radiation therapy. They recall that they’re supposed to avoid exposure to radiation and that every diagnostic CT scan they had exposed them to radiation. There are side effects. There are “radiation burns.”

Sometimes as a radiation oncologist, it is challenging to dispel these common fears. How can I recommend something as a treatment that is often taught to be avoided?

The science behind radiation

I can recommend radiation therapy because I, like all radiation oncologists, understand the biology and physics behind radiation.

I often tell patients: “Photons, which is the type of radiation we use, are high energy x-rays that are meant to kill tumor cells. Radiation causes DNA damage in cells. Your normal healthy tissue cells have proteins and repair mechanisms to repair the DNA damage that is caused. Cancer cells can’t repair the damage, and so they die.”

Partnering with our patients in treatment

I tell them that there may be side effects associated with radiation, just as there are potential side effects with any medical treatment. I tell them that it is their job to show up for treatment, to try to maintain good nutritional status, and to tell me if something is bothering them. It is my job to take care of them and do everything else.

Partnering with our patients in treatment

Radiation may or may not be indicated in the treatment of your cancer. If it is, keep in mind that there are nuances to each cancer diagnosis, and your radiation oncologist will be able to discuss all of this in great detail at your consult visit. Radiation is a local therapy, and it is crucial in the treatment of many cancers to prevent local (in the same area) and regional (in lymph nodes) recurrence. In some situations, radiation may also improve survival. While, of course, there are side effects from treatment, recurrent cancer, of course, has side effects too.

Talk to your radiation oncologist so that it no longer is a “scary black box.”

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