What Is Palliative Radiation Therapy for Cancer?

Palliative Radiation Treats the Symptoms, Not the Cancer

man receiving radiation therapy for cancer treatment
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Palliative radiation therapy is one form of palliative therapy, treatment for the symptoms of a medical problem that doesn't treat the problem itself. It's considered comfort care and is mainly intended to improve a patient's quality of life.

People who have cancer may receive palliative radiation therapy -- not to cure or even treat the cancer but, instead, to relieve the symptoms, especially pain, that it's causing.

Typically the radiation is used to shrink a tumor or tumors that are causing the symptoms.

How Can Palliative Radiation Therapy Help People With Cancer?

Some common reasons for considering palliative radiation for people with cancer include:

  • Pain Relief -- Palliative radiation is especially helpful in treating pain caused by tumors that have invaded bone. It can also relieve pain caused by tumors pressing on nerves.
  • Spinal Cord Compression -- A serious and painful condition, spinal cord compression is caused by tumors pressing on the spine and spinal cord. Palliative radiation may bring welcome relief.
  • Superior Vena Cava Obstruction -- Tumor obstruction of the superior vena cava (the second-largest vein in the body, carrying blood to the heart from the upper body) causes swelling in the face, shortness of breath, and a feeling of fullness in the head. Shrinking of the tumor using palliative radiation therapy may improve the patient's blood flow.
  • Bleeding -- Some tumors can cause troublesome bleeding. Hemoptysis, or coughing up blood, can be caused by tumors in the airway. Bleeding due to tumors in the rectum, vagina, or urinary tract may also be uncomfortable enough to treat with palliative radiation.
  • Obstruction of the Airway or Esophagus (Food Tube) -- Tumors that are obstructing the airway or esophagus, making breathing or eating difficult, are often treated with palliative radiation.

    Types of Palliative Radiation Therapy

    There are three ways to deliver radiation therapy, including palliative radiation therapy:

    External-Beam Radiation Therapy. This type of radiation is delivered to the outside of the body by a special radiation machine.

    Internal Radiation Therapy. Internal radiation is delivered by radioactive material placed inside the body near the tumor.

    Systemic Radiation Therapy. Systemic radiation is delivered throughout the body via the bloodstream. An example of this is radioactive iodine that is used to treat certain types of thyroid cancers.

    Side Effects of Palliative Radiation Therapy

    Radiation therapy effectively kills tumor cells but unfortunately affects healthy cells, too. Destruction of healthy cells may cause side effects. Some common side effects of radiation therapy include:

    • Weakness
    • Fatigue
    • Nausea
    • Diarrhea
    • Radiation cystitis (irritation and pain in the bladder)
    • Skin burns, irritation, and infections
    • Damage and infections in the lining of the mouth
    • Fever

    Expert palliative care by the cancer team can help with management of uncomfortable side effects.

     Most side effects of palliative radiation therapy will resolve within weeks of the last radiation treatment. 

    Sources:

    “Hospice care.” National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (2015).

    Lawrence TS, Ten Haken RK, Giaccia A. "Principles of radiation oncology." In Ramaswamy Govindan (Ed.), Devita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology Review, 8th ed. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins (2008).

    Ferrell BR, Coyle N. "Textbook of Palliative Nursing." Oxford University Press (2006).

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