Two well-known treatments, chemotherapy (or chemo) and radiation therapy, regularly aid people in their battle against cancer. Though they share some similarities, they are quite different. Both offer various benefits and beckon assorted side effects. Like any cancer treatment, their use depends on the type, location and progression of the disease. Frequently, doctors combine these two treatments together or with other techniques for optimal results.
Chemo utilizes medications to damage the DNA of cells, prohibit their duplication and eliminate their existence. Unfortunately, the drugs cannot differentiate between the infected and non-infected cells, causing impairment of healthy cells in the process. Usually, patients receive chemo after surgery to prevent its reappearance, before surgery to shrink tumors, or on its own when cancer has spread. Cancers treated with chemotherapy include leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin disease, multiple myeloma and sarcoma, as well as lung, breast and ovary cancers.
“According to the National Cancer Institute, about half of all cancer patients receive some type of radiation therapy.” Most solid tumors are treatable using this technique, including cancers of the brain, breast, cervix, larynx, lung, pancreas, prostate, skin, spine, stomach and uterus. Patients with leukemia or lymphoma often receive radiation therapy as well. Using a certain type of energy, it destroys cancer cells and minimizes tumors. Other names for radiation therapy include radiotherapy, x-ray therapy or irradiation.
Chemotherapy is a classification of many different medications for killing cancer. Some types of chemo drugs include alkylating agents, anthracyclines, topoisomerase inhibitors, antimetabolites, mitotic inhibitors and corticosteroids. Similarly, radiation therapy is a classification of several sources of radiation. For external radiation therapy, X-rays and gamma rays use photons, and particle beams use subatomic particles. Internal radiation therapy utilizes the radioactive isotope from several sources including iodine 125 or iodine 131, strontium 89, phosphorous, iridium, palladium, cesium, phosphate or cobalt.
In most cases, both chemotherapy and radiation therapy are delivered in a doctor’s office or hospital setting. Patients occasionally take chemo orally, but generally receive it intravenously. With radiation therapy, patients may receive internal beam radiation therapy (brachytherapy) or external beam radiation therapy (EBRT). Brachytherapy gives off radiation from a source planted inside the body whereas EBRT sends a beam of radiation through the body to the exact location requiring treatment. Chemotherapy is not nearly as precise with its distribution. Since this treatment travels through the bloodstream, more than just one location receives the medication, whether infected or not.
Radiation therapy and chemotherapy share a few comparable side effects, as well as some vastly different ones. Often, they depend on the location and type of treatment received or medication taken. Nausea and vomiting, fatigue, pain, diarrhea and infertility are a few possible side effects the two treatments have in common. In addition, chemotherapy patients may experience hair loss, mouth sores and damage to the kidneys, liver, lungs, brain or heart. Radiation therapy may cause changes in brain and lung function or an inflammation in the esophagus, stomach or intestine.