Fear Not: The Facts About Radiation
In my years as a radiation therapist, I have come across plenty of misleading information about radiation, including as a treatment for skin cancer. One of the best defenses against fear is knowledge. The more you know, the better prepared you are to overcome obstacles in your way. Let me put your mind at ease with some facts about radiation.
Fiction: The glow
“Radiation will make me glow.”
You might worry that radiation treatment will make your body or bodily fluids glow. This is not true. Some types of radiation, like internal radiation used for breast and prostate cancer or lymphoma, can cause a person to give off radiation after treatment. This is because the radiation put into the body during treatment may continue to emit radiation for some time. This will NOT, however, make you glow.
Fiction: Exposing others
“If I get radiation treatment, I risk exposing people around me to radioactivity.”
You may give off some radiation after receiving internal radiation therapy, which is used to treat cancers like breast or prostate. Because the radiation does not usually travel beyond the area being treated, the chances of exposing people around you are quite small. Still, for a brief time after treatment, you should be careful about close contact with others, especially pregnant women and children. Your oncologist will tell you if this is the case in your treatment.
This is not the case, however, for skin cancer radiation treatments. There are two types of radiation therapy – Image-Guided Superficial Radiation Therapy and Superficial Radiation Therapy – that send the radiation only as deep as the skin.
Fiction: Losing hair
“Radiation will make my hair fall out.”
Side effects of radiation therapy are limited to the area where the treatment is applied. Traditional types of radiation given directly to the head, for example, may cause hair on your scalp, or even your eyebrows and eyelashes, to thin or fall out. It can help to talk with your cancer team before getting treatment so you know what to expect. The team can also share tips for managing hair loss.
Side effects vary depending upon the type of skin cancer treatment. Image-Guided Superficial Radiation Therapy, for example, has been shown to have mild to moderate side effects that go away after treatment is over.
Fiction: Cancer risk
“Radiation treatment for skin cancer causes more skin cancer.”
Up to half of all people who have been diagnosed with one skin cancer will have another within 5 years. They may mistakenly think that the radiation used to treat their original skin cancer caused more cancer. The most common cause is exposure to damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or tanning beds. The best way to avoid UV radiation and prevent skin cancer is to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen (SPF 15 or higher) and avoid using tanning beds and sun lamps. There are no published reports of SRT radiation energy causing a secondary cancer within the area that was treated.
Fact: Different types of radiation for different conditions
“All radiation treatments are the same.”
This is one of the most common misconceptions I hear from patients. It is important to know that there are many different types of radiation treatments, including 4 types that are used just for skin cancer. Each varies in strength, how they are given, how well they work, and what side effects they may cause.
Every cancer, like every person, is different and should receive the individualized care he or she deserves. Getting the facts about all of your treatment options from a trusted healthcare provider, like your dermatologist or radiation therapist, is the first step in getting the right treatment for you.
Wondering if other things you’ve heard about radiation treatment are fact or fiction? Ask in the comments!
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