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Dispelling Some Common Radiation Therapy Myths

Radiation therapy is a frequent treatment for many types of cancers. But sometimes it can be misunderstood. So if you or a loved one are about to start treatment, it’s helpful to have the facts.

Here are six things that many patients mistakenly believe about radiation, and what you should know instead.

MYTH: Everyone with cancer needs radiation.

FACT: More than half of people diagnosed with cancer receive radiation therapy, and it’s an important part of many patients’ treatment plans. It works by using high doses of radiation to destroy or damage cancer cells. Radiation makes small breaks inside the DNA of cancer cells, which can stop the cells from growing and, ideally, kill them.

But whether you’ll need it depends on your individual cancer diagnosis.

 “Your team of physicians will develop the best plan for you as an individual with your type of cancer. This includes whether you would benefit from radiation,” explained Randi Cohen, MD, MS, a radiation oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

Radiation is most effective at treating cancers with solid tumors , but it can also be helpful for certain types of leukemia and lymphoma.  When cancer has spread throughout the body (metastasizes), radiation may still be used to help with symptoms and improve quality of life 

MYTH: Radiation is always given with chemotherapy.  

FACT: Radiation can be part of a treatment plan that includes other therapies like chemo or surgery. But for some patients, especially those with early-stage cancer, radiation alone may be enough to treat the cancer.   

MYTH: Your whole body receives radiation during treatment.

FACT: Radiation treatment is usually localized therapy—meaning it’s only aimed at parts of the body that need treatment. “With advanced techniques, we can put the radiation exactly in the part or parts of the body where we want it to be,” Cohen said. 

MYTH: The side effects of radiation are the same as chemotherapy.

FACT: It’s common, depending on the type of cancer and area being treated, to experience skin irritation at your radiation treatment area and fatigue. But you’ll likely only to have symptoms similar to chemo, like nausea or vomiting, if the radiation is aimed at your stomach or bowels, and you’ll only experience hair loss if radiation is aimed at your head.

MYTH: The radiation you receive is contagious.

FACT: Receiving radiation doesn’t make you radioactive, so for the most part, you won’t transmit radiation to others around you.

“People ask if they’re a danger to their children, grandchildren, or pets after radiation oncology treatments,” Cohen said. “But you’re not going to put anyone in harm’s way.”  

Patients receiving radioactive iodine treatment may have to limit their contact with others for several days as well. Much of these guidelines depend on your specific type of cancer and your treatment regimen. Your healthcare team will review it with you in detail.

MYTH: You’ll get the same quality of radiation therapy no matter where you’re treated.

FACT: Radiation isn’t a one-size-fits-all therapy—especially at dedicated cancer centers like Fox Chase.

“There’s an entire team involved in developing your treatment plan and making sure the equipment is being used correctly,” Cohen said.

That’s why it’s worth getting radiation therapy treatments at a dedicated cancer center by experts who know the ins and outs of your particular cancer.

“Here at Fox Chase, our higher patient volume means we have a higher level of experience at delivering radiation therapy and customizing treatments to match what an individual patient needs,” Cohen said.

Want to learn more?

These are just some of the key facts about radiation therapy. There is a lot more to know about this ever-involving cancer treatment.

Expand your knowledge about radiation treatment