Radiation therapy

Alternative names
Therapy - radiation; Radiotherapy

A treatment approach that uses radiation to destroy cancer cells.


Cancer cells usually multiply faster than other cells in the body. Since radiation is most harmful to rapidly reproducing cells, radiation damages cancer cells more than the normal cells of the body. It prevents these cells from continuing to reproduce and thus prevents the tumor from growing further.

Unfortunately, rapidly dividing healthy cells can also be killed by this process. Skin and hair are some of the tissues most noticeably affected by radiation treatment, resulting in skin lesions, burning, redness, and possibly Hair loss.

Radiation therapy is used to fight many types of cancer. Often it is used to shrink the tumor as much as possible before surgery to remove the cancer. Radiation can also be given after surgery to prevent the cancer from coming back.

For certain types of cancer, radiation is the only treatment needed. Radiation treatment may also be used to provide temporary relief of symptoms, or to treat malignancies (cancers) that cannot be removed with surgery.

The following are some commonly used radioactive substances:

  • Cesium (137Cs)  
  • Cobalt (60Co)  
  • Iodine (131I)  
  • Phosphorus (32P)  
  • Gold (198Au)  
  • Iridium (192Ir)  
  • Yttrium (90Y)  
  • Palladium (103)

Radiation therapy can have many side effects. These side effects depend on the part of the body being irradiated and the dose and schedule of the radiation:

  • Fatigue and malaise  
  • Low blood counts  
  • Difficulty or pain swallowing  
  • Erythema  
  • Edema  
  • The shedding or sloughing-off of the outer layer of skin (desquamation)  
  • Increased skin pigment (hyperpigmentation)  
  • Atrophy  
  • Skin itching (pruritus)  
  • Skin pain  
  • Changes in taste  
  • Anorexia  
  • nausea  
  • Vomiting  
  • Hair loss  
  • Increased susceptibility to infection  
  • Fetal damage (in a pregnant woman)

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 3, 2012
by Gevorg A. Poghosian, Ph.D.

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