Despite our best efforts patients can still sustain damage from radiation. Natural support can be an effective option to help you manage and recover from these side-effects, so don’t hesitate to ask your ND for acute care for any side-effects you might be experiencing.
Radiation & it’s Impact on Your Body
Radiation, which uses high-energy waves to destroy cancer cells directly, is one of the most common treatments for cancer. Unlike chemotherapy, this is a localized treatment. This means that how radiation may affect your body varies depending on where the tumour is located.
Radiation can effectively kill cancer because cancer cells grow and divide faster than healthy cells, making them more vulnerable to the damage caused by radiation. With each radiation treatment, small breaks are made in cancer cell DNA, which then prevents cancer cells from growing and ultimately causes them to die.
There are two primary types of radiation:
External Beam Radiation: this is the most commonly used form and is done over a few weeks as an outpatient procedure (meaning you do not have to stay in the hospital but will be traveling to and from home daily).
Internal Radiation (aka. Brachytherapy): this is when a radioactive source is placed inside the body, either into or near the tumour. It is often done in the hospital and requires an overnight stay, but it can be given to you as an outpatient as well (depending on the type, dose, etc).
What to Expect
Radiation is often done daily for 5 days (with breaks on weekends), for around 5-6 weeks. This is the most common schedule, but depending on the goal of radiation, the location of your cancer and the specific type of radiation being used, the frequency and duration of your treatment may differ.
While the first few days or weeks may be unremarkable, leaving you feeling about the same as you did prior to treatment and able to function well, the compounding effect of radiation can start to cause complications and side-effects toward the end of your treatment regimen. For others, side-effects may appear within days of starting treatment. Often these reactions and side-effects pass after a few months of treatment, but ensuring your body is able to cope and recover from these effects is a key consideration as we support you through this process.
questions to ask before Radiation
What’s the goal of radiation for my cancer?
Is it to shrink the tumour or destroy it?
Are you trying to stop cancer spread or prevent it?
Are there any other treatment options?
Can radiation be used instead of surgery?
What are the chances the cancer will spread or come back if I do / don’t get radiation?
What should I expect?
What type of radiation will you use?
How should I prepare for radiation?
What will radiation treatment be like?
How often will it be given and how long will it take?
How will radiation affect the non-cancerous areas around my tumour?
How will I feel while I’m getting treatment?
What are the most likely side effects? When could they start?
What long-term side-effects are possible?
Will radiation put me at risk for any future health issues?
preparing for Radiation
Not only do we want to make sure you aren’t taking anything that will interfere with how effective radiation will be, but we also want to ensure you are utilizing natural support that has the potential to improve tumour sensitivity to radiation, to help make treatment even more effective. Radiation relies, in part, on the formation of free radicals for the cytotoxic effects. This means all antioxidants need to be stopped prior to starting radiation, including supplements and IV therapy forms of antioxidant treatments.
Support Through Radiation
There are two main areas of focus when caring for anyone going through radiation treatment: (1) to prevent and/or reduce the most common side-effects of radiation (2) to improve radiosensitivity (i.e. improving tumour cell sensitivity to radiation).
Most adverse effects and side-effects will be addressed by your oncology team, however, despite our best efforts people may still sustain damage from radiation. Natural support can often be a less expensive, more effective option to help you manage and recover from these adverse effects, so don’t hesitate to ask your ND for acute care for any side-effects you might be experiencing.
Preventing / reducing side-effects of radiation
Some of the most common side-effects of radiation include:
How you are supported will depend on where you will be receiving radiation as some side-effects are more common to specific sites on the body. You can see more information about this here.
Improving how cancer cells respond to radiation
While still in the early days of research, there are a number of natural therapies that have been shown to be both safe for use through radiation and have shown to improve how effective radiation treatment is. By making tumour cells more sensitive to radiation damage, this treatment can ultimately be more effective, giving you better outcomes. How and when this is used depends on the type of cancer you have and is a unique discussion with every patient.
recovery from Radiation and aftercare
Recovery from radiation looks slightly different for everyone as care is primarily determined by what side-effects you are dealing with. Initially, recovery support is focused on reducing any side-effects that came up during active treatment, since recovery from these may take a long time and the faster you feel better the faster you can return to your normal activities.
Lingering fatigue is a common side-effect that often takes longer to resolve than people expect and can significantly impact day-to-day life. In addition to this, there are a number of long-term complications that we will also address as radiation, regardless of where on in body you had treatment, can put you at risk for other problems in the future such as osteoporosis, lymphedema, skin changes, and an increased risk of other cancers.
Depending on where radiation occurred, there are a few other long-term side-effects we want to pay special attention to supporting now, and reducing your risk for later.
Brain: cognitive changes, speech changes, ataxia
Head and Neck: cataracts, cavities / tooth decay, difficulty swallowing
Chest: heart / vascular issues, cardiomyopathy, hypothyroidism, lung disease / fibrosis
Abdomen and Pelvis: infertility, malabsorption of food, gut dysbiosis
Screening for and addressing any risk factors for long-term complications is a key are of aftercare for every patient who undergoes radiation therapy. Every patient will need a different combination of support options as they prepare for radiation and move into recovery. This is why there’s so much benefit to speaking with your naturopathic doctor before you begin radiation as prevention can often go a long way in reducing your risk of complications and side-effects.
If you’re in the midst of a cancer diagnosis and are preparing for or recovering from radiation don’t hesitate to reach out to us with questions, or to book a complimentary 15 minute meet-and-greet with one of our practitioners.