Radiation therapy is a painless procedure that may be used to treat colon or rectal cancer. Also called radiotherapy, it is the use of special high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells.

Radiation therapy is only used to affect the cells in the cancerous area, so it is called a local therapy. In contrast, chemotherapy is a systemic therapy because the drugs used travel throughout the entire body.

Radiation therapy is frequently used in patients with rectal cancer, and may be used either before or after surgery. It is used prior to surgery in order to shrink the tumor and make it easier to remove. After surgery the radiation may kill any remaining cancer cells that couldn’t be removed during surgery. Radiation therapy may also be used to relieve the symptoms that are caused by the cancer such as pain or pressure.


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There are two types of radiation therapy, external and internal. During external therapy a machine is used to supply the radiation to the site of the cancer. It is normally given on an outpatient basis at a hospital or clinic. There are several different types of external radiation machines therefore the prescribing physician will determine which is appropriate on a case-by-case basis.

Internal radiation therapy may also be called brachytherapy or implant therapy. For internal therapy a small object containing radioactive material is inserted near or even inside the tumor. The implant could be a wire, plastic tube, capsule, or seed.

The two types of radiation therapy may be used together or singly. They may also be used during or after chemotherapy or other cancer treatments. Radiation therapy is typically given over a period of 6 or 7 weeks, 5 days a week (treatments are not normally given on Saturdays or Sundays). Some types of therapy may be given for only 2 or 3 weeks.

Radiation therapy will affect normal cells as well as the cancer cells and may cause side effects. Normal cells will not be killed by the radiation, and many of them will recover from the treatment. The medical team giving the therapy will do everything possible to shield normal cells and prevent any adverse effects. Some of the possible side effects include:

  • Bloody Stools
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Skin changes at the treatment site

During radiation therapy there are several things a patient can do to make them more comfortable. To combat fatigue, it is important to get plenty of rest. Good nutrition is also imperative to prevent weight loss and keep up strength. Loose clothing should be worn over the treatment area to prevent irritation to the skin. Routine physical check ups with the prescribing physician will be necessary to monitor the effects of the radiation and treat any possible side effects. Blood tests to monitor white cells, red cells, and platelets may also be used. Following the treatment plan is crucial to attaining success with radiation therapy.

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