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Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022



How radiation therapy combats cancer

Q. I have a friend who is undergoing radiation treatments for cancer. I was wondering how this works. Doesn’t the radiation burn everything it touches?

Radiation therapy kills cancer cells by damaging their genetic material. This process prevents the cells from growing. Radiation attacks all cells in a targeted area, but most healthy cells recover when treatment ends.

When you are given radiation therapy — also called irradiation, radiotherapy or X-ray therapy — physicians attempt to protect the good cells by shielding them. They also limit dosage and spread out the treatments.

About half of all cancer patients receive some type of radiation therapy, which uses ionizing radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. This therapy can be delivered from machines outside your body or from radioactive material inserted into your body.

External radiation is the most common type used in this therapy. Internal radiation uses sealed implants in or near the tumor. Systemic radiation therapy employs unsealed radioactive materials that circulate throughout the body. In some cases, more than one type of radiation is prescribed.

External radiation uses a machine that directs high-energy rays into the tumor. Most external radiation is given over many weeks during outpatient visits.

Internal radiation (also called brachytherapy) uses radioactive metal pellets, seeds, ribbons, wires, needles, capsules or tubes that are implanted. In some cases, patients may have to be admitted to a hospital for this procedure. Implants may be left in the patient temporarily or permanently.

Radioactive drugs are used in systemic radiation. These drugs can be given by mouth or injection. Systemic radiation often requires a brief hospital stay.

Radiation therapy may be used to treat almost every type of solid tumor and cancers of the blood (leukemia) and lymphatic system (lymphoma). The type of radiation used depends upon many circumstances, such as the type of cancer and its location.

Radiation therapy also can be used to reduce pain from cancer. This is called palliative radiation therapy.

Will radiation therapy make you radioactive?

External radiation therapy will not make you radioactive. If you undergo internal radiation therapy, your body may briefly give off a small amount of radiation.

If the radiation is in a temporary implant, you will be asked to stay in the hospital and may have to limit visitors during treatment. Permanent implants give off small doses of radiation over weeks. The radiation usually is confined to the treatment area; the risk of exposure to others is small.

Sometimes doctors recommend protecting the people around you if you have systemic radiation. Radioactive materials can get into your body fluids with this type of therapy. In most cases, safety precautions must be followed only the first few days after treatment. Over time the radiation becomes weaker, and your body gets rid of it.

Q. What are the options for treating prostate cancer?

Prostate cancer is one of the most common types of cancer among American men. Treatment for prostate cancer works best when the disease is found early.

There are many options for treating prostate cancer:

• Observation. If the cancer is growing slowly, you may decide to wait and watch.

• Hormone therapy. This stops cancer cells from growing.

• Surgery. There are several surgical options. These include radical prostatectomy or removal of the entire prostate, cryosurgery that kills the cancer by freezing it, radiation therapy to shrink tumors, and implant radiation that places radioactive seeds into the prostate.

Surgery can lead to impotence and incontinence. Improvements in surgery now make it possible for some men to keep their sexual function.

Q. What exactly is perimenopause?

The process of reproductive aging begins around age 40. Declining levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone change a woman’s periods. These hormones maintain the health of the vagina and uterus and regulate the menstrual cycles.

Menopausal transition, called perimenopause, is when a woman’s body is close to menopause. Periods may become irregular. A woman may start to feel hot flashes and night sweats.

Perimenopause usually begins about two to four years before the last menstrual period. It ends when menopause begins. A woman reaches menopause when a year has passed since her last period.

Postmenopause follows menopause and lasts the remainder of a woman’s life. Pregnancy is no longer possible. There may be symptoms such as vaginal dryness long after menopause.

Q. I’m 67 years old. Should I expect to get cataracts eventually?

A cataract is a clouding of the lens, the clear part of the eye that helps focus images like the lens in a camera.

Most cataracts are related to aging. By age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery. There are other causes of cataracts such as diabetes, eye injury, radiation and surgery for other eye problems.

Cataracts tend to worsen gradually. The clear lens slowly changes to a yellowish/ brownish color, adding a brownish tint to vision. If you have advanced lens discoloration, you may not be able to identify blues and purples.

The most common symptoms of a cataract are: blurred images, faded colors, glare, poor night vision, double vision and frequent prescription changes in your eyeglasses or contact lenses. If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor, because they can be signs of other eye problems.

If you are 60 or older, you should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once every two years. In addition to cataract, your eyecare professional can check for signs of age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma and other vision disorders. Early treatment for many eye diseases may save your sight.

Fred Cicetti is a freelance writer who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. Before he began freelancing, he was a reporter and columnist for three daily newspapers in New Jersey. If you would like to ask a question, write to fred@healthygeezer.com.


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