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Education is always a good thing. But sometimes, understanding the difference between facts and myths in medicine can be challenging. And when it comes to something as important as radiation therapy in cancer treatment, getting to the bottom of some common myths could help you or a loved one make informed decisions in a battle against cancer.
Our cancer experts put together this list of seven common myths about radiation therapy to help you on this topic.
Myth: Radiation therapy is painful.
Receiving radiation therapy itself is not painful, but sometimes, the side effects can cause some discomfort or pain. For example, radiation to the head and neck can cause short-term side effects such as a sore throat, trouble swallowing or mouth sores. But it can also help relieve pain. If you have a tumor that's causing pain, radiation can actually shrink the tumor and help bring some comfort.
Myth: Radiation therapy will cause me to be radioactive.
This is only true in some cases. With external radiation therapy, radiation is given to a specific area of the body and does not make a person radioactive. On the other hand, with internal radiation therapy where an implant or radioactive substance is put into the body, it's possible that your body could give off a small amount of radiation for a short period of time. In these less common cases, your healthcare team might recommend taking extra precautions to keep your distance from pregnant women or children during a radioactive period.
Myth: Radiation therapy will cause me to lose my hair.
Hair loss on the head is typically only a risk if you are receiving radiation therapy to the brain. In fact, hair loss on the head is a more common side effect of chemotherapy, not radiation therapy. Radiation therapy can cause hair loss in the treated area, such as underneath the arm for a patient with breast cancer receiving underarm treatment to the lymph nodes.
Myth: Radiation therapy increases my chances of developing more cancer.
While not zero, the risk of a second cancer from radiation treatments is very low and a very late potential side effect of radiation that can occur many years later. This second cancer risk (occurring years later) is most often outweighed by the benefit of treating the active known cancer. Each person should work with his or her doctor to understand any late side effects of radiation therapy and all the risks vs. benefits to make an informed decision about your course of cancer care.
Myth: Radiation will cause nausea and vomiting.
Yes and no. This side effect depends on the part of the body being treated by radiation therapy. If the brain or the upper abdomen around the small intestine (or small bowel) and/or the liver is being treated, the risk of nausea and vomiting is higher. Fortunately, treatment teams are aware of this risk and can work with you to help prevent and manage this side effect with medications and treatment plan modifications.
Myth: Radiation therapy mutates genes and can get passed down to children.
Radiation treatments do alter cellular DNA to kill cancer cells, but this type of alteration only occurs in the person in which the mutation occurred; the effect is therefore called somatic or nonheritable. However, if a patient is pregnant, there is risk to the developing baby. Therefore, radiation is not delivered during pregnancy. If there is an emergency that requires radiation during pregnancy, special care is taken to reduce the likelihood of any side effects of radiation to the developing baby.
Myth: Radiation therapy will cause cancer to spread.
Radiation therapy is used to treat and even help prevent cancer from recurring. It is usually only recommended after careful consideration where the potential benefits of the treatment far outweigh the risks involved. If cancer does spread, it is unlikely that it is attributed to radiation therapy alone.
Do you still have questions about radiation therapy? Our cancer experts at the Florida Hospital Cancer Institute are here to help. Visit us online today or call (855) 303-DOCS to connect with one of our compassionate cancer care advocates for support or more information.