Radiation has been shown to shrink tumors, relieving associated pressure and pain. Oncologists utilize “targeted” therapy — only exposing specific areas of the body to minimize damage to healthy cells. As a result, patients report fewer side effects than other forms of treatment, like chemotherapy.
There are several advantages to using this type of therapy for malignant mesothelioma. Radiation may be administered during any stage of the disease, as both a curative treatment to extend life or as a palliative treatment to make the patient more comfortable. Similar to other treatment options, radiation can be used alone or combined with surgery or chemotherapy. When following surgery, adjuvant radiation therapy has shown increased survival times, as it kills any remaining cancer cells not removed during the surgery.
3 Ways Radiation Therapy Can Benefit Mesothelioma Patients
- Making surgery more viable: Radiation is sometimes used to shrink tumors before surgery, making them easier to remove, or resect.
- Improving overall survival: A 2018 meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology compiled nine years of studies from the National Cancer Data Base on patients with malignant pleural mesothelioma. The results: patients who underwent adjuvant radiation therapy — or radiation after surgery — had a median survival of 21.4 months, compared to the 16.6-month average survival time seen in patients who underwent surgery alone.
- Easing discomfort: As the cancer progresses, tumors grow larger, leading to pain and discomfort, such as breathing difficulties. Radiation therapy is often used to shrink those tumors, especially for patients who can’t undergo surgery to remove them.
Administering Radiation Therapy to Mesothelioma Patients
Radiation treatments are delivered in two ways: externally and internally. External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) is the most common and involves using an external machine to direct high-energy radiation beams into specific areas of the body. Brachytherapy, or internal radiation, involves placing radioactive material inside the body on or near the tumor.
EBRT is the most common form of radiation therapy used to treat mesothelioma. The procedure is noninvasive and generally done on an outpatient basis. Typically, patients will receive radiation five times a week over several weeks. Appointments last between 10 to 30 minutes. Patients may notice relief from specific symptoms after just one or two visits.
How to Prepare for Radiation Treatments
- Rest: Radiation therapy is usually administered five days a week for several weeks. This treatment can tax the immune system, causing patients to feel more tired than usual. This exhaustion can last for several weeks after treatment, so it can help to plan extra time off to allow the body to rest and rejuvenate.
- Plan meals: Treating areas near the abdomen or throat can cause digestive issues or lead to a temporary loss of your ability to taste food. Spicy and chewy foods can be tough to swallow. Oncologists suggest eating a bland diet of soft foods for a few weeks.
- Ask for help: Side effects from radiation therapy can last for several weeks after the treatment ends. Simple tasks like cleaning, running errands, doing laundry, or cooking can feel exhausting and overwhelming. It may help to gather a small group of family members and close friends who can help with daily or weekly errands and chores.
What to Expect During Treatment
The radiation process is similar to having an x-ray. Patients lie down on a table in the same position each time, to ensure the radiation reaches the correct area of the body. In some cases, a radiation therapist will use an immobilization device — like a head or neck cradle — to prevent excess movement.
Once your body is in the correct position, the therapist will move into a control room, where he or she will administer the radiation and watch the treatment from a television monitor. You may hear the machine click or make soft whirring sounds as it moves around the treatment table. Don’t worry; this is all normal! There is a microphone in the treatment room, so you may ask questions or talk to the therapist at any time.
An oncologist will work with the radiation therapist to monitor your treatments, which may include blood work and additional imaging tests. This monitoring will help the medical team see how your body is responding to the treatment and determine if any changes need to be made during therapy.
Radiation Side Effects
As with any treatment, patients may experience both short-term and long-term side effects from radiation therapy. These vary depending on the type of mesothelioma the patient is fighting, the size of the area that is exposed, and the length of treatment. Radiation isn’t painful, but side effects can worsen over time.
Common radiation side effects include:
- Hair loss: Hair follicles are sensitive and don’t respond well to radiation therapy. Patients may experience temporary or even permanent hair loss between two to three weeks after exposure.
- Skin irritation: Red, irritated skin is a common symptom for more than 80 percent of patients receiving radiation. This type of high-particle energy often causes the skin to peel away faster than it grows back, leading to blisters and, in severe cases, ulcers. Radiation-induced dermatitis usually heals within two to four weeks after therapy. Talk to your doctor if your reaction is severe.
- Fatigue: Radiation therapy destroys both healthy and cancerous cells, which can stress your immune system and cause mild to extreme exhaustion. This tiredness often increases, so it’s important to get plenty of rest during therapy.
Radiation affects each patient differently, so it’s important to speak with your oncologist to determine if this type of therapy will work for you.