Radiation therapy, also known as radiotherapy, is one of the most common treatment options for cancer patients. It works by directing high doses of radiation to the site of the cancer to stop the cells from multiplying and spreading, with the eventual goal of killing them entirely to remove cancer from the body. However, like all advanced treatment options, it is not without risks. One of the types of cancer that radiation therapy is commonly recommended for is prostate cancer.
There are several different uses of radiation therapy as a treatment for prostate cancer. Although it is most commonly employed as a curative treatment to rid the body of cancer, sometimes complete removal is not an option. In that case, radiation therapy can be administered as a palliative treatment to help control the spread of the cancer and ease symptoms.
The type of treatment a prostate cancer patient receives depends on the degree and severity of the cancer. In external beam radiation (EBRT), high doses of x-ray beams are aimed out of a machine onto the prostate. Treatments can extend for several weeks, because the dose of radiation required to kill the cancer cells must be spread out over multiple sessions to ensure minimal damage to healthy cells and decrease the risk of side effects.
A second form of radiation therapy is internal radiation, also known as brachytherapy or IRT. This treatment involves a small surgical procedure in which a radioactive pellet is inserted internally on the prostate.
A third option is systematic radiation, which pumps a liquid concentration of radioactive substances into the patient either orally or through an IV. The radioactive substances then travel through the body to the cancer site.
Radiotherapy is often a highly effective cancer treatment, especially when combined with other treatments such as chemotherapy. Chemotherapy can make cancer cells more receptive to radiation, resulting in a better outcome. Research from the Radiation Oncology Targeting Center found that, overall, radiation therapy is 95% effective at treating prostate cancer. The cure rate for men with intermediate-risk prostate cancer treated with external-beam radiation therapy was 95.5% and 91.3% for men with high-risk prostate cancer.
Although radiation therapy is a highly effective form of treatment, the risks associated with it are well-known and should definitely be a point of discussion any prostate cancer patient should bring up with their doctor before settling on a treatment. Side effects include damage to healthy cells, skin damage, and fatigue. As Dr. Michael Steinberg explains in his video for the Prostate Cancer Research Institute, many of the problems that used to be associated with external-beam radiation, such as rectal bleeding, impotence and bladder complications, pose much less of a risk than they used to. The risk of asymptomatic rectal bleeding runs between two and four percent, and symptomatic rectal bleeding is only half a percent. Bladder problems used to have a risk of about 15% 15-20 years ago, and have been reduced to less than one percent with new intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) techniques.
As with any medical procedure, the risks of radiotherapy should be weighed with benefits. Your doctor should be able to clear up any questions or concerns you may have and determine your best course of action. Additionally, the medical team administering the therapy can clearly explain the risks and take measures to manage or avoid potential complications.