Radiation or radiotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy radiation to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiotherapy is usually applied to the body externally, using beams of radiation from a special machine. Radiation may also be internally administered by implanting radioactive isotopes directly into the area where the cancer cells are found, in a process called brachytherapy. Radiation is often administered at Hawai‘i treatment centers along with surgery or chemotherapy as part of an aggressive multi-modality treatment. Radiation has proven particularly helpful as a way to attack residual disease remaining in the chest cavity after pleurectomy or extrapleural pnuemonectomy. Radiation can also help prevent the tumor from metastasizing or spreading along the incisions left by surgery or other invasive procedures, such as thoracoscopy, needle biopsy, or chest tube drainage.

Radiation therapy alone is not usually considered a curative treatment for mesothelioma. However, it may be very effective as a palliative treatment. For some mesothelioma patients who are not good candidates for surgery or chemotherapy, radiation can be a good way to control symptoms and improve your quality of life. Radiation is especially effective in treating pain and shortness of breath. There are some newer radiation treatments that show great promise. You should discuss with your doctors to determine whether they may be appropriate in your treatment plan.

What to Expect

If your doctor thinks that you are a good candidate for radiotherapy, he or she will prescribe either external or internal radiation. Your doctor may also refer you to a radiation oncologist who specializes in radiation therapy. The doctor administering the radiation will give you a schedule of treatments, which may require days, weeks, or even months of radiation to complete. Make sure you follow the schedule to get the full benefit of the treatment.

If the doctor recommends internal radiation, this will require a surgical procedure, and you may have to spend some time in the hospital. External radiation, on the other hand, is generally done in a specialized clinic on an out-patient basis.

The side effects of external radiation are relatively mild, compared to most other cancer therapies. However, radiation does destroy healthy cells along with cancerous cells. This often causes fatigue and loss of appetite. In addition, if you opt for brachytherapy, you will experience the additional side effects of the surgery. Fortunately, the side effects of radiation generally subside once the treatment is over as the healthy cells begin to repair themselves.

The most common side effects of radiation therapy are:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Inflammation or redness in the skin near the treated area
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Decrease in white blood cells (leaving patient prone to infection)