When you or a loved one receives a cancer diagnosis, it’s normal to have many thoughts running through your head. You may wonder just how bad the cancer is or what it means for your future. You may also wonder what the treatment is actually like.
In terms of treatment, you may hear the words “chemotherapy” or “radiation.” Or maybe your doctor says you need a combination of both. Whatever your doctor recommends, you may wonder what the difference is between the two.
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What Is Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy, or chemo, is a category of drugs that doctors use to treat cancer. Chemo is a “systemic” treatment. This means it works through your whole body to kill existing cancer cells and prevent the spread of the disease.
Chemo drugs can also help shrink tumors that are causing pain or other problems. This can help when your doctor isn’t able to remove the tumors surgically.
Chemotherapy side effects
Chemo side effects vary depending on the type and amount of chemotherapy drug you need and how your body reacts to it. Because chemotherapy drugs travel through the body, they can also impact healthy cells, leading to a variety of side effects.
Chemo targets fast-growing cancer cells. As a result, it may also target healthy fast-growing cells in your body. This can lead to certain side effects.
Here are some of the fast-growing cells in your body — and the side effects chemo may cause if it kills those cells too:
- Blood-forming cells in the bone marrow. Damage to these cells can cause anemia and increase your risk for infection and bruising.
- Hair follicles. Damage to these cells can cause temporary hair loss.
- Cells in the digestive tract. Damage to these cells can cause nausea, loss of appetite, constipation, and diarrhea.
Some chemo drugs can damage cells in the heart, kidneys, bladder, lungs, nervous system, and reproductive system. Your doctor will monitor you closely and may prescribe medicines to protect your body’s normal cells. There are also medicines to help relieve side effects.
Types of chemotherapy
The exact drugs your doctor recommends will depend on the type and stage of cancer as well as your age and overall health.
There are many different ways you can receive chemo drugs. The most common are:
- Intravenous (IV) infusion: The medication goes directly into a vein, a process that often takes 30 minutes to a couple of hours.
- Orally: You take the medication by mouth.
- Injection: You receive an injection of the drug into your body (typically in your arm, thigh, belly, or hip).
- Topically: You apply a cream directly onto your skin.
Depending on your needs, you may receive the chemo at your doctor’s office, at an outpatient client, in a hospital, or even at home.
Learn more about chemotherapy treatment at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.
What Is Radiation Therapy?
Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy particles or waves to destroy or damage cancer cells. Special equipment sends high doses of radiation to the cancer cells or tumor. This means that, unlike chemotherapy, radiation therapy focuses specifically on the part of the body where the cancer is.
Sometimes, your doctor will recommend radiation to treat your cancer. Other times, they may recommend it to help you feel better — for example, to minimize bone pain if the cancer has spread to your bones.
Radiation therapy can take place on its own, but doctors frequently recommend it together with chemo to maximize your chances of success.
Radiation side effects
Many people who receive radiation experience some degree of fatigue from treatment. Other side effects may vary depending on the part of your body that’s receiving the radiation. That’s because radiation can damage nearby cells.
For example, radiation in the pelvic area may cause sexual, fertility, urinary, and bladder problems. It can also cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In contrast, radiation to the brain can cause headaches, blurry vision, and problems with memory and concentration.
Ask your doctor what type of side effects are likely for your radiation treatment.
Types of radiation therapy
You can receive radiation in one of two ways: internally or externally.
External radiation therapy
With external radiation therapy, you receive a beam of radiation delivered externally from a machine. It’s very similar to receiving a chest x-ray.
When receiving treatment, you’ll need to lie flat on a treatment table, under the radiation machine. A technician will cover other parts of your body with special shields or blocks to prevent them from receiving the radiation.
You’ll typically receive treatments five days each week (on weekdays only) for one to 10 weeks. The frequency and duration of treatment depend on the type and location of the cancer, your overall health, and other factors. The treatment only takes a few minutes.
Internal radiation therapy
With internal radiation therapy — also called brachytherapy — your doctor will place a radioactive source inside your body. Your doctor will place this radioactive source, called an implant, either into or near the tumor. This delivers large doses of radiation directly to the source of your cancer.
The implant may look like a wire, pellet, or seed. Sometimes, it remains in your body. Other times, it will only remain in your body for a few hours or days.
If the implant will remain in your body, you may need to limit your time with — or even avoid — children or pregnant women. After a few weeks to a few months, the implant stops giving off radiation, and you can return to normal activities. But the implant will remain in your body forever.
Doctors typically place the implant while you’re in a private hospital room. Visitors can only stay with you for short periods of time.
Learn more about radiation oncology treatment at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.
What Cancer Treatment Is Best for Me?
Your oncologist and health care team will work closely with you to determine your best treatment plan. Your treatment plan may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, or any combination of these.It’s important that you understand your options, so feel free to ask your medical team as many questions as you have. They are your best source of reliable information. They can address how each treatment will work for you given your specific medical situation.
For more information on chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and treatment options, visit the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center website.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.