Radiotherapy is a treatment commonly used for cancer. It is not common for it to be offered to mesothelioma sufferers due to its significant side effects. However, those with pleural mesothelioma may be offered a course of intensity modulated radiotherapy if they have had surgery, in an effort to stop the cancer from returning.

If someone has a more advanced case of pleural mesothelioma, in which case surgery is not a suitable solution, radiotherapy may still be offered. In this case, it is used to stop the growth of the cancer, or to control the symptoms. It can be a very efficient pain treatment.

Most commonly, however, a small amount of radiation therapy may be provided at the biopsy site. This will stop new mesothelioma cells to grow back in the new scar tissue. There have been some studies to demonstrate that this may be effective, but they have been very limited and have to be reproduced in order for them to be truly conclusive.

How Radiotherapy Is Administered

Radiotherapy is provided inside a hospital. In most cases, it is performed every day, with a rest on weekends. How often the patient will have to go through this process depends entirely on which area is treated.

It is important to have the treatment cycle planned out properly, which a multidisciplinary team of specialists will do for the patient. They will calculate the amount of radiotherapy that is needed, as well as exactly where it should be directed. A planning appointment can take a few hours, or it can be over in as little as 15 minutes. The patient will usually be given a CT scan, which will show exactly where the cancer is, and how it is presenting. Markers will be placed on the skin and it is vital that the patient does not move during the scan itself. The scan takes around five minutes to complete and is entirely painless. It is likely that the patient will also be given an MRI scan and a PET scan of the affected area. Put together, this information will help radiographers determine the most appropriate course of treatment.

Usually, the results of the test will enable radiographers to place ink marks on the patient’s body. These marks will determine exactly where the treatment has to take place and to make sure that the same location is treated every day. Small tattoo marks may even be placed to make sure the exact same area is treated each day.

Once the patient has completed the planning sessions, the radiotherapy will start within a few days, or no more than two weeks. This is the time that physicians need to completely finalize the details. The patient will then be ‘contoured’ so that the treatment is delivered at the right place and at the right time.

Having radiotherapy can feel very intimidating. Naturally, the patient will be going through some strong emotions because of receiving treatment that may, or may not, save his or her life. Additionally, the machine itself is very big and can look quite frightening. However, everything will be explained so that the patient knows exactly what each part of the machine does. The patient will be placed in a treatment room and allowed to be comfortable. The patient can even bring an iPad or other music system that can plugged into the machine.

The patient won’t actually feel anything during the treatment itself, which usually takes between 10 and 20 minutes to complete. He or she must remain in the same position each time the treatment is provided. This is the most time consuming part of the treatment itself, as physicians will check positioning again and again. Once the patient’s position is right, the patient will be monitored through a closed circuit screen.

Contrary to what popular culture may want people to think, the patient does not become radioactive following the therapy. The patient can spend time with others, including children, when undergoing the treatment.

Radiotherapy Side Effects

Side effects of radiotherapy can be significant. However, for those who have had treatment for mesothelioma, it is likely that the radiotherapy will be performed only on the scar tissue, and this means that side effects are very unlikely. If side effects do occur, they are likely to be:

  • Loss of hair in the area where the treatment was provided
  • The skin around the treatment area going slightly red

The redness is best compared to a mild sunburn and can feel a little bit irritated. For those who recently had chemotherapy, it is possible that this reaction will be slightly stronger. Washing the treatment area using just plain water will provide some relief. However, the patint should not use any type of perfumed washing products, unless the physician specifically said this is allowed.

The patient should make sure to tell the physician if the skin does get sore. This will enable the doctor to check the site. Because each person is unique, the reaction may be different as well. Radiographers, however, have seen most side effects and know how to relieve discomfort better than anyone else.

For those who receive treatment on the lower chest, it is possible that they will experience diarrhea or feel sick. This can be controlled through medication. The patient should make sure to ask whether or not such medication is really required.

If the treatment is on the upper chest, the patient may find it hard to swallow and may have a dry and sore throat. Eating and swallowing may be difficult if such is the case. If this happens, the patient must mention it to the physician as there may be a need to be referred to a dietitian.

It is likely that the patient will be monitored by a physiotherapist during the treatment, who will ask the former to complete certain exercises. These will stop the patient from feeling stiff and may also reduce aches and pains in the shoulders and chest. These pains are quite common after radiotherapy has been completed.

The worst side effects tend to be towards the end of the treatment. However, once the treatment has been completed, the side effects will usually go away within just a few days. Furthermore, the patient will generally be provided with medication for comfort.