4 Radiation Myths: Busted

Therapeutic radiation for cancer treatment may not be as scary as it sounds. Advances in technology coupled with an increasing understanding of cancer biology have made the delivery of radiation faster, more effective and in many cases less likely to cause the dramatic toxicities commonly associated with radiation treatment of the past.

Misconceptions about the affects of radiation commonly lead to increased anxiety about the treatment. But, a better understanding of this important component of cancer care may help minimize that uncertainty.

So we decided to bust some myths about radiation by talking to Dr. Anton Khouri, a radiation Oncologist at the TriHealth Cancer Institute.

Myth 1: My skin will burn.

Actually, according to Dr. Khouri, radiation oncologists have become much better at, when appropriate, delivering the dose of radiation to deeper targets while better sparing the skin of burns.

“We use our knowledge of physics to manipulate the depth of dose penetration—something that was more difficult to do without modern day treatment machines,” Dr. Khouri says.

But, Dr. Khouri adds, if it’s your skin that’s being treated by radiation then it’s probably a good sign that a reaction to the radiation is visible. That means the beams are focusing on the correct target!

Myth 2: I’ll be radioactive after treatment.

Luckily, you don’t have to worry about glowing green or exposing your family and friends to dangerous toxicities if you’re being treated with external beam radiation.

“A majority of what we do is delivered with a beam of radiation that, once it’s shut off, no longer provides any radiation to you or anyone around you,” Dr. Khouri says. The radiation beams do their job of attacking cancer cells. After their job is done, the radiation clocks out and won’t be back until the next treatment.

“There’s a reason why we, as practitioners, can walk in and out of these rooms every single day without being exposed to excessive amounts of radiation,” Dr. Khouri says.

Myth 3: I’ll feel sick and lose my hair.

Not exactly. Radiation is a “local treatment” in much the same way that surgery is: it’s very focused on one area of the body. That means the side effects are directly related to the area that’s being treated. This is unlike chemotherapy, which may cause side effects outside of the area being treated.

“I wouldn’t expect a patient to lose the hair on their head, for example, if I were treating their breast cancer,” Dr. Khouri says. “Now if I was treating your head, the risk of hair loss becomes much higher. The side effects depend on where the beams are focused.”

Myth 4: Radiation treatment will cause cancer.

Well, this one isn't really a myth—but the chances of it happening are pretty low.

“It’s important to consider the risk of causing a new cancer in the context of the potential gain from treatment," Dr. Khouri says. “In medicine, we try to weigh the potential risks of a treatments to the potential benefits of a treatment in making a recommendation for care. Radiation is no different—does the benefit of the radiation outweigh the risks?"

The likelihood that therapeutic radiation would lead to a new cancer is exceedingly small and depends on a number of factors including age at the time of treatment, region of the body treated, and the dose received.

“In the treatment of most adults, the benefits of treatment far outweigh the risks of developing a new cancer,” Dr. Khouri says. “But the best thing any patient can do is be informed—ask questions. Ask a lot of them. You should feel that your doctor has provided you with all of the information you need in order to make an informed decision.”

Isn’t it a relief to know that radiation treatment won’t likely burn your skin or poison you and the loved ones you're around? Radiation treatment for different types of cancer has improved a lot over the years, and the progression of medicine and research will likely continue to improve it. If you have questions or concerns about treatment, never hesitate to talk to your doctor.

If you want to know more about the types of cancer treatments our doctors provide, and why, visit the TriHealth Cancer Institute Web Page.

Tags Cancer