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You go to the doctor’s office for a standard appointment and everything goes smoothly. You’re in good shape, your vitals are normal, and you’ve asked all the questions you needed to. The doctor spews words that may go over your head or be hard to understand but you nod your head anyway. Understanding medical terms isn’t always a walk in the park, after all you didn’t go to medical school nor are you a doctor.

For cancer patients, understanding medical terms takes practice. Perhaps you’ve been recently diagnosed and are pondering your options. Maybe your loved one announced that they have cancer and you’re doing your research. No matter your attention in learning about cancer treatments, Dr. Michael Chin of Worcester, MA has put together this guide to understanding the difference between radiation therapy and Chemotherapy.

What is Radiation Therapy?
One form of cancer treatment is known as radiation therapy – a treatment in which cancer cells are killed through concentrated radiation beams. This involves a machine that can target specific sites of cancer cells or even tumors with high-energy beams of radiation directed at the area. External-beam radiation allows x-rays or gamma rays to target specific cancer cells in the body as a form of treatment.

Another form of radiation therapy is known as internal radiation therapy (or brachytherapy) where radioactive material is placed in the body as a source of radiation. This radiation is placed either near or inside of a tumor. Through a method of needles, catheters, or other carriers, small “seeds” of radioactive isotopes give off radiation in order to damage the nearby cancer cells. Over time, the isotopes decay and cease to give off radiation. Even after they are left in the body, they will not cause further damage once they decay.

Almost half of cancer patients will receive some form of radiation therapy after they are diagnosed. This is a trying time in life for not only those diagnosed, but for friends and family as well. Medical literacy, per se, is one of the most important factors in this situation to keep stress levels at bay– given the circumstances.

Radiation therapy kills cancer cells by damaging their DNA. A major side effect to this is that the radiation can also kill non-cancer cells, or normal cells in the body. Is this potential damage worth the risk? In some cases, the answer is yes.

To give you a personal, real life example, let’s look at Clark Hayward’s story. Clark was a 53-year old, active man in healthy shape. During a standard physical, a doctor found a nodule on Clark’s prostate. While there were no symptoms that Clark experienced, he discovered the cancer had spread beyond the prostate during a biopsy. Clark’s world had gone from an active lifestyle, to a life-threatening diagnosis. Radiation was prescribed rather than surgery to best fit Clark’s lifestyle, in order to target the cancer. Clark’s treatment made a huge difference on his lifestyle, in which his Doctor determined what was best to not only treat Clark’s cancer, but give him the best chance to continue his normal lifestyle.

The main reasons doctors will prescribe radiation therapy are: aiming to cure the cancer, preventing recurrence, or to be used in a combination with chemotherapy cure/prevent cancer cells. Radiation is also used for palliative patients that need this form of therapy to relieve their symptoms.

In some cases of cancer, doctors will choose chemotherapy instead of radiation therapy.

What is Chemotherapy?
In short, Chemotherapy is often referred to as “chemo”. Chemo targets cancer cells that grow and divide quickly. When cancer spreads, chemo will shut down certain processes in the body to ensure the body doesn’t continue to grow the tumor or cancer cells. One of the major differences between radiation and chemo is that while radiation targets specific cancer cells, chemo can work throughout the body. Although a major benefit of chemotherapy is its ability to target fast growing cells, it can also harm normal, healthy cells which is where hair loss, skin cells, and other side effects come into the picture.

Cancer is a gravity in which people understand its force. In healthy human defense, chemotherapy comes in a few forms. Chemo will be used to: cure cancer, control cancer/keep it from spreading, or to ease the patient’s symptoms if there is no chance of a cure. Depending on the cancer, doctors will sometimes combine chemotherapy with surgery, radiation therapy, or biological therapy (a treatment that uses living organisms).

In addition to types of chemotherapy, it comes in various timeframes. Some patients will need a much longer treatment than others. The stage and type of cancer are major factors. Another consideration is how the patient’s body responds to chemotherapy.

Here’s a real-life story with a unique twist on the situation. Amy Barr was an oncology pharmacist, someone who specializes in drugs for cancer patients. In 2010, she fearlessly began chemotherapy for breast cancer, facing hair loss and fatigue. Amy’s situation as a cancer patient was different than most, because she had inside knowledge. Medication for cancer was her profession. Due to this, she was able to help design her own treatment. Amy now had first-hand experience in what her career was dedicated to assisting.

In Amy’s story we see prime examples of the depressing side effects that chemotherapy can bring. Hair loss is easily seen by the public and often difficult to hide. Other symptoms such as intense fatigue and nausea affect everyday functionality. Amy was used to being able to remember things from decades ago, but “chemo brain” had changed this for Amy. Her career as an oncologist helped her understand and recognize symptoms to her treatments.

Although Amy endured other major side effects, she’s living proof of how having inside knowledge can have a major impact on your treatment.

If cancer has affected your life in some way, shape, or form– whether you or someone you know has been diagnosed with cancer… having true knowledge on the options and treatment of cancer will be extremely helpful throughout this process. No one wants to go through cancer. Until there is an overall cure, stay knowledgeable on the treatments you or your loved one may have to endure.