Radiation vs. chemo: Understanding different cancer treatment options

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Immediately after your cancer diagnosis, your cancer care team starts creating a treatment plan. They compare the pros and cons of radiation, chemo, and other available treatments to decide which one would work best for you. The goal is to choose personalized cancer treatments suited to your needs.

The type of cancer you have, the area of the body where it started, whether it has spread, and many other factors play into which treatment you receive.

Chemotherapy

Cancerous cells grow and spread by rapidly dividing in two. Chemotherapy drugs travel throughout the body, looking for and destroying those rapidly dividing cells. This can help slow the growth of cancer, shrink tumors, stop the spread of cancer, and provide relief from symptoms.

Currently, there are more than 100 types of chemotherapy, according to the National Library of Medicine. The medication you receive depends on the type of cancer you have, its stage, and other factors.

Cancers commonly treated with chemotherapy might include:

  • Brain cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Hodgkin lymphoma
  • Gastrointestinal cancers (stomach, intestinal, colorectal, anal, pancreatic, etc.)
  • Leukemia
  • Lung cancer
  • Lymphoma
  • Myeloma
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Sarcoma

Chemotherapy targets all rapidly dividing cells in the body—cancer cells as well as other healthy cells in the hair follicles, bone marrow, digestive tract, mouth, and reproductive system. Because chemotherapy can’t differentiate between cancer cells and fast-growing healthy cells, it kills both. As a result, someone undergoing chemotherapy might lose their hair, develop mouth sores, lose weight, and experience fatigue, along with many other side effects that develop when healthy cells die.

Chemotherapy comes in different forms. The most common form is delivered through an injection or IV. In certain cases, you can take chemotherapy pills or use a topical chemotherapy cream.

Some patients receive chemotherapy as a standalone treatment, but in most cases, patients receive two or more treatments for their cancer.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. It can be delivered in one of two ways:

External beam radiation therapy. Useful for treating a variety of cancers, external radiation relies on a machine to focus a beam of radiation on the cancerous area, destroying any cells it contacts.

Internal radiation therapy. Prostate, neck, and cervical cancers might respond to a type of internal radiation known as brachytherapy. With brachytherapy, a radioactive seed, capsule, or ribbon is injected near or in the tumor. Over time, the radioactive material releases radiation and destroys cancerous cells.

Although radiation therapy is more precise than chemotherapy, it can also damage healthy cells. Side effects of radiation therapy include:

  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Headaches
  • Hearing loss
  • Irritated, blistered, or swollen skin
  • Nausea and vomiting

Surgery: Complementing chemotherapy and radiation therapy

Surgery can be the first, last, or only treatment needed. With skin cancer, for example, surgery can remove a lesion or cancerous area before the cancer spreads to other areas of your body.

In many cases, however, surgery is used in addition to chemo and radiation. Choosing when to turn to surgery depends on your needs. Cancer surgery can help in the following situations:

  • You have a large tumor. Before undergoing radiation therapy or chemotherapy, a surgeon might remove part of your cancer. This is common when removing a tumor would injure nearby healthy tissues or organs. After surgery, chemotherapy or radiation can help kill the remaining cancer cells.
  • Other treatments shrink your tumor. Clinicians can use surgery after treating cancer with radiation or chemo to shrink a tumor and make it easier to remove.
  • Your cancer causes pain or other symptoms. Very large tumors can press against organs and cause pain and other symptoms. Surgery to remove part of the tumor might provide relief and improve quality of life.
  • Cancer surgery results in physical changes. Reconstructive surgery restores the body’s natural shape after surgery or other treatment. Performed by a plastic surgeon, breast reconstruction is one of the most common reconstructive surgeries in cancer care. It takes place after the partial or total removal of one or both breasts.
  • You want to prevent cancer. Some people at high risk of cancer undergo preventive surgery before cancer is diagnosed. If genetic testing shows a high risk of breast and ovarian cancers, mastectomy or ovary removal can reduce the risk.

A new option for treating cancer

New therapies are improving cancer care. Immunotherapy works by helping your body fight cancer on its own.

A healthy immune system is always on guard, protecting you from sickness. When germs, viruses, and other foreign substances enter your body, your immune system identifies the threat and works to eliminate it.

Cancer cells sneak by your immune system because they aren’t foreign invaders. They’re made by your body. As a result, your immune system doesn’t always recognize cancer cells as a threat. This allows cancer cells to multiply and spread without your immune system noticing. Immunotherapy trains your immune system to identify and attack cancer cells.

Immunotherapies can be used to treat the following cancers:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Brain cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Liver cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Stomach cancer

Regardless of the type of cancer you have, you can be confident your Reid Cancer Center team will personalize a treatment program that will work best for you.

Looking for help navigating the road to radiation, chemotherapy, and beyond? Request an appointment at Reid Cancer Center to learn how we can help you.

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