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Friday, August 24, 2012 3:01 PM
These days, cancer is not a death sentence. Many of the cancers that could not be survived 30 years ago are now curable. Radiotherapy is often part of the cure and can be combined with surgery and / or chemotherapy. Sometimes radiotherapy can be prescribed to extend life or treat the pain of a spreading cancer.
Whatever the situation, your oncologist (cancer specialist) is the expert on this treatment and how it many affect you.
Radiation therapy is usually in the form of a very small wavelength of light energy called gamma radiation. This is at the very small end of the light spectrum. If you wanted to put this very small wavelength in perspective, it may help to know that the next biggest wavelength is X Rays, then ultraviolet rays, the visible light, then infrared rays, then radar, then Microwaves, FM radio, then TV, then shortwave, then AM at the top end.
Radiation therapy is designed to damage cancer cells and kill them. It does this by damaging the DNA (proteins in the nucleus), cell membranes, and by creating a lot of free radicals that steal electrons and damage molecules in cells. The problem is that normal cells are often affected as well and so the skin and nearby organs can receive “bystander damage”.
The ideal situation would be to find a way to optimize the cancer killing effect of radiation while protecting the normal cells.
Early reactions to radiation therapy can include redness and swelling of the skin along with tenderness. Any other local side effects depend on where the radiation has been given. For example, if it’s the chest or breast, there could be an effect on the heart, blood vessels may thin, and the arm on that side might swell as well as possible stiffness and shoulder pain. Any damage to nerves, bone or cartilage in the area could cause pain too.
If it involves the areas of the mouth, oesophagus (food pipe), or bowel, there would be an effect because the cells in these tissues are rapidly dividing so are damaged by the radiation. The result is that these areas can become inflammed and sore and so the person may find it painful or difficult to eat and digest.
Longer term side effects of radiation can include thinning or fibrosis (hardening up and loss of elasticity) of tissues. This may affect the skin, pericardium (membrane around the heart). These effects on the heart can lead to coronary artery disease as well as effects on the valves and heart muscle and the effects increase with the years after the radiation.
Radiotherapy can also cause nutritional deficiency. Vitamin B12 and calcium deficiency have been recorded.
It is important to remember that if you have been prescribed radiotherapy, it is for your overall benefit and in many cases is life saving. When viewed overall, the benefits generally outweigh the risks of side effects. However, it would be ideal if the side effects could be prevented or reduced. The notion of taking antioxidants during radiotherapy is worrisome to cancer specialists because these antioxidants could also protect the cancer cells, so there is a dilemma! Patients are advised against taking large doses of antioxidants like Vitamin C during a course of radiotherapy.
The ideal situation would be to have something that helps the radiotherapy work even better at killing cancer cells while protecting normal cells. There has been some research in this area suggesting a few substances could be useful in the future:
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