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Radiotherapy and other cancer treatments

Radiotherapy uses radiation to damage cancer cells and stop them from reproducing. It can be used by itself or combined with other cancer treatments.

Radiotherapy can sometimes cure a cancer, but more often it is used to shrink the cancer, stop it from growing or stop it spreading.

How does radiotherapy work?

Radiotherapy uses radiation to destroy or injure cancer cells so they cannot multiply. You may receive radiation from a machine, or a radioactive implant may be placed inside your body near the cancer. Sometimes you may swallow a capsule of 'radioisotopes'.

What are the side effects of radiotherapy?

Some people have side effects such as dry mouth, sore throat, dry, red or itchy skin, feeling tired, nausea or digestive problems, cough, feeling short of breath, swelling of the area, loss of appetite or hair loss.

Many of these side effects come on a week or two after the treatment has started. They will gradually disappear after the treatment is finished.

Radiotherapy in or near your reproductive organs can cause fertility problems, either temporarily or permanently. It is important that you discuss this with your doctor.

Sometimes normal tissue can be affected by the radiation, but it usually recovers.

What are the other cancer treatments?

Other treatments include:

  • chemotherapy
  • hormone therapy – this fights the hormones that help the cancer grow
  • immunotherapy – this helps the immune system fight cancer
  • targeted therapy – drugs that specifically attack cancer cells
  • surgery – what type of cancer you have will affect what surgery is suggested and how long it will take to recover.

You may receive one or more types of cancer treatments depending on factors such as the type of cancer and how far it has spread.

What is palliative care?

Palliative care is treatment aimed at relieving the symptoms of cancer. It may be used for someone that has cancer that has grown, spread and is unlikely to be cured.

Palliative care aims to give the person with cancer as good a life as possible. It is not about shortening or lengthening life, but improving its quality.

What about alternative therapies?

You may wonder about alternative therapies, especially if your cancer is advanced. There is no evidence that alternative therapies can cure cancer, and they can be expensive. If you choose to use an alternative therapy, tell your doctors and don’t delay or stop using conventional treatment in favour of it.

Some complementary therapies, like massage, can help with discomfort and anxiety, so you may choose to use them.

Before using any conventional, complementary or alternative therapy it’s important to find out potential benefits and side effects before deciding to use it.

Last reviewed: March 2017

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