What is Radiation?
Radiation treatments direct high-energy particle beams into specific areas of the body, destroying cancer cells and often reducing the size of tumors, relieving associated pressure and pain. Oncologists use “targeted therapy,” only exposing certain areas of the body to avoid damaging nearby healthy cells. Patients who undergo radiation often report fewer side effects than other types of therapy.
When treating malignant mesothelioma, radiation has several advantages over other treatments. Doctors can administer this therapy at any stage, using it as a curative treatment to extend a patient’s life or as a palliative option to relieve pain or discomfort. In some patients, adjuvant radiation therapy is used after surgery, to kill microscopic cancer cells left behind. According to a 2009 study, mesothelioma patients who received this treatment combination lived six months to a year longer than patients who underwent surgery alone.
Radiation Therapy: 3 Benefits for Mesothelioma Patients
Boosting overall survival: In 2018, the International Journal of Radiation Oncology compiled nine years of research from the National Cancer Data Base on patients with malignant pleural mesothelioma. According to those findings, patients who were given adjuvant radiation treatments after surgery survived several months longer than those who had surgery alone.
Preventing metastasis: Some oncologists believe it’s possible for microscopic cancer cells to spread to other sections of the body during surgery. This concept is known as “seeding.” Administering small amounts of radiation to surgical sites may help combat this problem and prevent new tumor growth.
Alleviating pain: When left untreated, mesothelioma tumors increase in size and press against nearby internal organs. For patients, this can be uncomfortable or even painful. Radiation can help shrink these tumors, making it easier to breathe or move through daily life. This treatment is especially helpful for patients who can’t undergo surgery to remove large tumors.
Different types of radiation therapy
There are two ways to deliver radiation treatments: externally or internally. External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) uses an external machine to direct high-energy beams into specific parts of the body. Internal radiation is called brachytherapy and involves placing radioactive materials inside organs or tissues near mesothelioma tumors.
Of the two, the majority of mesothelioma patients will receive EBRT. It’s non-invasive and administered on an outpatient basis. Most receive treatment five times a week, and appointments can last anywhere from 10 to 35 minutes. Just one or two visits may alleviate pain in some patients.
Preparing for Radiation
Get plenty of rest: Mesothelioma patients usually receive radiation treatment in concentrated doses during a three to four week period. This therapy stresses the immune system and may lead to fatigue and even exhaustion. Patients may find it helpful to schedule additional time off to rest and recuperate.
Meal planning: Treatment for pleural or peritoneal mesothelioma patients may involve radiating areas near the abdomen or throat. This can cause digestive issues, making it a challenge to chew or even taste certain foods. Oncologists may suggest patients change their diets to include bland or soft foods for several weeks after radiation therapy.
Find support: Radiation may help shrink tumors, but it also causes side effects that may last for several weeks. Daily chores like cleaning, doing laundry, running errands, and even cooking may become overwhelming. Patients may benefit from finding a small group of close family members or friends to assist with these tasks.
The Treatment Process
Before the treatments begin, an oncologist and radiation therapist will design a treatment plan that works specifically for the patient. This process is called “radiation simulation.” The medical team will take images of the patient’s body, and make small marks around the treatment area to ensure the body is in the right position.
Radiation treatments for mesothelioma aren’t invasive, and oncologists compare the process to having an X-ray. The patient lies on a table in a specific position each time. This way, beams of radiation can reach the same spot each time. Some of the body positions may be challenging to hold for long periods of time. In this case, a radiation therapist may give the patient an immobilization device like a head or neck cradle for extra support.
When the body is in the correct position, the therapist moves into a control room. There, he or she can administer the treatment and watch the process from a television monitor. The machine moves around the table and may click, or make soft whirring noises. This is all normal. For those who may feel uncomfortable, there’s a microphone in the treatment room, so patients have access to the technician at all times.
Oncologists and radiation therapists frequently meet during each course of treatment. This way, they can monitor how the body is responding, and make changes as necessary. For example, if a tumor shrinks, a therapist may adjust the treatment area and make it smaller, to avoid any additional damage to nearby healthy cells.
Radiation is non-invasive and painless for patients, but it does come with both short-term and long-term side effects. Individuals all respond differently to radiation therapy, and side effects can vary based on the type of mesothelioma, the size of the treatment area, and the length of exposure. As a patient, it can be helpful to keep a list of any and all symptoms, especially if they’re uncomfortable. Many medications can provide relief both during radiation and after the treatment course is complete.
Common side effects:
Hair loss: Hair follicles are sensitive and don’t always respond well to radiation. A few weeks after treatment, patients may experience both temporary or permanent hair loss around specific treatment areas.
Skin burns: Radiation often causes the skin to burn and peel away faster than the body can replace it, causing blisters and even ulcers in some patients. Nearly 80 percent will experience some type of skin irritation after a course of radiation. According to oncologists, radiation-induced dermatitis usually heals within a few weeks after treatment. However, any severe reactions should be dealt with immediately.
Exhaustion: Treatment destroys both abnormal and healthy cells, which often stresses the immune systems and leads to mild or even extreme fatigue. This tired feeling often builds each week, so it’s important to rest as much as possible during radiation treatment.
Radiation affects everyone differently. An oncologist can determine if this type of therapy will work for you.