Radiation therapy is one of the most common treatments for mesothelioma and is often prescribed as part of a treatment plan that follows surgery (extrapleural pneumonectomy or pleurectomy/decortication). This is called adjuvant radiation therapy and it can significantly improve your survival rate1. Chemotherapy may also be part of the treatment plan.
Radiation therapy involves destroying cancer cells with radiation to make it a curative or palliative treatment. Radiation therapy is often used to destroy cancerous cells that were not removed during surgery (adjuvant radiation therapy) as well as stunt or shrink tumors, thereby decreasing the severity of symptoms like pain and breathing difficulties. Techniques have been refined in recent years.
Research has found that while radiation therapy is effective in the treatment of all types of mesothelioma, it is most beneficial for pleural (affecting the lining of the lungs). It may not be prescribed for peritoneal because of potential toxicity to the organs in the area.
Radiation therapy types
External beam radiation
Radiation is delivered by a device that is outside of the body to destroy cancer cells. No surgery is involved and it is painless, although side effects do exist. To ensure accuracy in exposure and dosage, a number of careful measurements are taken prior to the procedure. This preparation generally takes longer than the actual treatment itself.
You’ll most likely need several treatments spanning a few weeks or months, performed 5-7 days a week.
Once cancerous tissue has been removed during surgery, and before the incisions are dressed, radiation may be applied to the affected area. There are two reasons for this:
- It destroys cancer cells that the surgeon may not have been able to reach or see.
- There is a concern that cancer cells may become detached from the tumors that are removed during surgery and attach to healthy tissues (aka “seeding”). Intraoperative radiation helps prevent this from happening.
Brachytherapy is a third type of radiation therapy technique. A radiation-emitting device is placed inside the body, in or near a tumor, to destroy cancer cells. However, it is rare for mesothelioma patients to undergo this type of radiation therapy.
The risks of radiation therapy include cardiac damage, myelitis (inflammation of the spinal cord), pneumonitis (inflammation of the lungs), collapsed lung, excess fluid buildup and liver damage. You may also feel fatigue and nausea as temporary side effects, as well as have some redness/sensitivity and hair loss where your skin is exposed to the radiation.