Radiation therapy is an effective treatment for breast cancer, but it can evoke fear in some patients. UCLA researchers who surveyed breast cancer patients found that nearly half had heard worrisome stories about radiation therapy. Despite this, nearly 90 percent of respondents said that actually undergoing the treatment was much less scary than they had imagined.
Why the disconnect? It’s possible that the public’s perception of radiation hasn’t kept up with advances in care. Technological advancements have created radiation therapy techniques that precisely target cancer cells while minimizing radiation to nearby healthy cells.
“This is not your mother’s radiation therapy,” says Ray Lin, MD, medical director at the Scripps Radiation Therapy Center. “The treatments are quicker and more precise, with fewer side effects.”
Most concerns about radiation therapy center around radiation damage to the heart and lungs. But Dr. Lin points out that newer radiation oncology machines are much better at conforming to tumors and avoiding healthy tissue.
In some ways, these concerns about radiation therapy are a good sign. As treatments improve, patients live much longer and thus have time to consider long-term effects. “In the past, we might not have seen many of these complications, because patients often died of breast cancer,” Dr. Lin says. “But now there are more than 3 million survivors.”
Medicine has evolved to mitigate side effects and support long-term survivors. For example, a relatively new subspecialty called cardio-oncology helps guide treatment to protect the patient’s heart. “Now that we recognize the issue,” says Dr. Lin, “we educate patients more, and we monitor more.”
This typifies how radiation oncology is practiced now. It’s not just about treating the disease; clinicians are equally focused on side effects and future ramifications.
The next step is getting the word out so that patients need not experience unnecessary anxiety.