Radiotherapy is a targeted treatment that treats cancer by using high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells in a particular part of the body. The advantage of radiotherapy over chemotherapy is that it causes less harm to the normal cells. The length of treatment and location is dependent on the individual’s diagnosis1.
Radiotherapy can be given externally or internally where a radioactive material is placed inside the body. Similar to chemotherapy, radiotherapy targets rapidly dividing cells, however radiotherapy uses x-rays, gamma rays, electron beams or protons to destroy or damage the cancer cells2
Depending on the area being treated short term side effects can include sore red skin, feeling tired, hair loss, sickness & diarrhoea. Chemotherapy can sometimes be used alongside radiotherapy, this can worsen any side effects of the treatments. Some of these short-term side effect will require complementary treatments such as a blood transfusion.
Long-term effects can include damage to the nervous system, reproductive system, bones and can have negative effects of puberty.
Damage to the hair – occasionally hair loss can be permanent if radiotherapy is given at a high dosage3.
Damage to the lungs – Radiotherapy administered in the area of the lungs can increase the risk of developing pulmonary problems4.
Damage to the teeth – Similar to chemotherapy, radiotherapy can increase the risk of dental abnormalities later in life, especially in those who receive treatment before they grow their adult teeth.4
Risk of secondary Cancers – Radiotherapy can lead to development of solid tumours within the radiotherapy field 4.
Standard radiotherapy affects the tissue in front, around and behind the cancer – damaging a large range of cells that don’t need to be damaged in order to cure the cancer. Proton-beam therapy is a more targeted beam that stops at the cancer, meaning less healthy cells are damaged. For children who’s healthy cells are still developing proton-beam therapy can be a huge benefit in minimising late-effects.
In 2018 the first high-energy proton beam therapy centre run by the NHS opened at the Christie Hospital in Manchester5.