Health Care

Radiation Therapy and Chemotherapy: The Difference Between These Most Common Cancer Treatments

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Cancer is a complex disease to treat. Because this is a disease that affects the genetic make-up of the body's smallest structural and functional units, its cells, treatment varies a great deal between types of cancer, and even from one person to another. The human body has an estimated 37.2 trillion cells, so you can imagine the diversity in cancers, and as such, treatments to help cure them.

To offer the best possible outcomes in overcoming a cancer journey, a multidisciplinary team of doctors and cancer specialists must collaborate and personalize the safest and most effective treatment plan for you. And this is what the AdventHealth Cancer Institute does each and every day, for each and every patient that it serves.

While chemotherapy and radiation therapy are the most common types of cancer treatment used in combination, with other treatments, or singularly in patients' treatment plans, the specific course of these treatments is always tailored to the individual based on a whole-health approach in body, mind and spirit.

But it still helps to understand the basics of what chemotherapy and radiation therapy are, and how they differ in their process and effects on the body. Let's explore them.


Chemotherapy has two main distinguishing factors. First, it uses specialized drugs that are designed to target and kill cells that divide rapidly (like cancer cells). Second, these drugs work throughout the entire body, not just one specific part, so they can prevent cancer cells from spreading to other parts of the body.

Because chemotherapy affects all cells in the body, it can cause side effects outside of where the cancer is located. While every type of chemotherapy carries its own set of risks and side effects, every person may also experience treatment differently. That said, according to the American Cancer Society, some of the most commonly reported side effects from chemotherapy include:

  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Easy bruising and bleeding
  • Infection
  • Anemia (low red blood cell counts)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Appetite changes
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Mouth, tongue, and throat problems such as sores and pain with swallowing
  • Nerve and muscle problems such as numbness, tingling, and pain
  • Skin and nail changes such as dry skin and color change
  • Urine and bladder changes and kidney problems
  • Weight changes
  • "Chemo brain, "which is related to symptoms of decreased concentration and focus
  • Mood changes
  • Changes in libido and sexual function
  • Fertility problems

There are many different types and forms of chemotherapy. It can be delivered as an outpatient procedure, in a hospital, a doctor's office or even at home through an IV, taken by mouth, by injection, or a direct skin application.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy works much differently. While chemotherapy delivers drugs to the entire body, radiation aims to only target the specific area of the body where there are cancerous cells, and aims to reduce the number of healthy cells that are affected during treatment.

Instead of "killing" the cells themselves, radiation acts to damage the DNA of the target cancer cells, which causes them to die as a result. While the treatment will also affect the healthy cells surrounding the cancer cells, the healthy cells will generally repair the DNA damage and heal themselves after treatment.

When it comes to side effects, radiation therapy is a little different than chemotherapy in that it only causes side effects in the area being treated (with the exception of fatigue), and generally has risk for both early and late side effects. Early side effects present during or shortly after treatment and tend to be short-term, mild and treatable.

The American Cancer Society lists these common early side effects of radiation therapy:

  • Fatigue (feeling tired)
  • Skin changes
  • Location-specific side effects, such as hair loss or mouth problems if radiation is received in that area

Depending on the area treated and radiation dose used, late side effects may appear months or even years down the road and occur in any place that the body has received radiation. The goal of any treatment plan is always to minimize risks of late effects, so careful treatment planning is always our top priority.

How Radiation Therapy and Chemotherapy are Used to Treat Cancer

No body and no cancer is created equal. And no approach to cancer treatment should be created equal, too. While chemotherapy and radiation therapy are both designed to treat the body and to fight cancer, each does so in different ways.

Each person's body and each type of cancer can respond to treatments differently, so this is where an expert-level of care with access to some of the most advanced treatments, technologies, research, physician specialists and a whole-person approach to care become so important.

While some patients may only receive chemotherapy or radiation therapy, others may receive a combination of both, or even additional treatments such as immunotherapy, more personalized medicine or clinical trials. These are all things that our cancer experts help patients with every day to offer the best possible outcomes for cancer treatment, recovery and cure.

Learn more about innovative cancer treatments at the AdventHealth Cancer Institute, or call Call855-303-DOCS for more information.

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