Cancer is a scary thing. When the diagnosis occurs, all of the sudden it seems you need to become an expert in the disease, understand all of the treatments, how they differ, what new research is coming out. It is daunting. That’s why we here at Silver Cancer Institute are writing this blogs, to provide you – our readers- with the information you are searching for, to help answer those questions. On today’s blog we are answering a question that comes up frequently when it comes to cancer treatment: ‘What is the difference between chemotherapy and radiation?’
First, what those both are. Both chemotherapy and radiation are forms of treatment for cancer. Some patients are prescribed one or the other, or a combination of the two, but that is about where the similarities end.
The Difference Between Chemotherapy and Radiation
Chemotherapy, often shortened to ‘chemo,’ is a treatment that involves drugs to treat the cancer. It works by pushing these drugs (they vary depending on the stage and type of cancer they are fighting, as well as the patient’s health and age) throughout the entire system. They are either intravenous or orally taken, typically administered by a doctor or nurse.
The drugs target cells that divide rapidly, like cancer cells. Unfortunately, there are other cells that have that same characteristic, hair and digestive tract cells. These cells are also damaged by the process of chemotherapy. There are other side effects related to chemotherapy as well:
- Increased risk of infection
- Loss of appetite
Certain chemo drugs can cause further damage in the heart, bladder, kidneys, lungs, and nervous system. That’s why doctors will monitor you closely, prescribe further medicine to supplement or protect your body’s other normal cells.
This form of therapy uses high-energy waves or particles to blast apart the cancer cells. Special equipment sends high doses of radiation to the tumor or cancer cells. This radiation also affects the healthy cells surrounding the cancer cells. Thankfully, normal healthy cells can repair themselves, cancer cells cannot.
While radiation therapy can be applied on its own, it is traditionally used in conjunction with chemotherapy to make for a more ‘comprehensive’ treatment plan. There are two different forms of radiation as well, internal or external.
Internal relies on radiation being placed inside the body, sometimes called brachytherapy. The implant is placed directly near on the tumor or near it. The large doses of radiation burn away the source of the cancer.
External radiation uses a machine to deliver a beam of radiation directed at the specific location of the cancer cells or tumor. It’s sort of like when you get an x-ray at the dentist. Typically, patients who undergo external radiation will receive treatments five days a week for anywhere between a week or two and a half months.
As with any treatment, there are some side effects. Aside from the damage to the nearby cells, other side effects include:
- Dry, tight skin at the site of the radiation
- Skin sores or ulcers
- Swelling of the lymphatic system
- Possible development of secondary cancers
So, there you have it, put very simply, the difference between chemotherapy and radiation. Both are effective cancer treatments (though not the only ones). They each have their inherent risks and side effects associated with them, and whether they are used in conjunction or not is dependent on a number of factors to be worked out with your doctor.
In treating cancer, you need to know what your options are, and heed the expertise of your doctors. Together, we can help fight back this terrible affliction. Here at Silver Cancer Institute, we offer a variety of other cancer care options as well.