If you are going through cancer treatment, you may wonder why you need radiation.  Radiation comes in different forms and can be used in different ways.

This article will focus on situations (not stage IV cancer) that I encounter as a Medical Oncologist. Here are some examples where radiation may be used with chemotherapy, either in sequence (sequential) or at the same time (concurrent):

Man Receiving Radiation Therapy for Cancer Treatment

Adjuvant therapy after chemotherapy has ended. See my post about adjuvant therapy to better understand this word.  In some cases of cancer that has already been cut out, there is a high risk that it may grow back in the local area even after chemotherapy has been given. Radiation may be yet another adjuvant therapy to prevent this from happening. Breast cancer is an important example.

Given together with chemotherapy at the same time.  In such situations, chemotherapy may act as a “radiosensitizer” and help radiation to work even better in killing cancer cells. This applies to cancers of the head and neck, cervical cancer, and cancer of the anus. Brain cancers also fall in this category.  Some times, cancer kill with the combination “chemoradiation” is good enough, and surgery may not be needed.

To shrink tumors so they can be cut out surgically. In some cancers like those of the esophagus and rectum, radiation may be given initially with chemotherapy to shrink a tumor before surgery. Sometimes, radiation may also be given alone, depending on the situation.

To treat large tumors (that will not be cut out) after chemotherapy has ended.   In some cases of Hodgkin Lymphoma, the term “bulky” disease is used because of a tumor being originally very large. Radiation, given after chemotherapy has ended, can further help prevent such a cancer from growing back.

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