Radiation therapy is a standard treatment for prostate cancer.
It may be used as the only treatment or as part of a treatment program, depending on the cancer. Radiation therapy may be classified generally as external or internal, and the two types are sometimes used together.
Who is a candidate for radiation therapy?
Radiation may be used on almost any prostate cancer. Sometimes it is the only treatment necessary for a tumor that is caught very early. If the cancer spreads beyond the prostate or recurs, radiation is sometimes used with hormone therapy.
In the case of advanced prostate cancer, radiation may help keep the cancer contained, giving the patient a higher quality of life during his remaining time.
What is external beam radiation therapy?
As the name suggests, external beam radiation therapy sends a beam of radiation into your body from the outside. EBRT techniques allow the beam to be focused very precisely on the cancerous area, so the surrounding tissue is left largely unharmed.
Your doctor may use an imaging process like MRI or 3D-CRT to get a clear image of your prostate before the radiation is applied. This helps to target the right spot even more closely.
EBRT protocol typically calls for five to eight weeks of treatment. You will usually have to be treated five days a week. The sessions are painless and short. Getting your body in the right position often takes longer than the radiation itself.
There are several different types of EBRT. The type called intensity modulated radiation therapy is the most commonly used. IMRT uses computer technology to move the beam around your body to attack the cancer from different angles.
What is internal radiation therapy?
Internal radiation therapy is also called brachytherapy. It involves having small pellets of radioactive material inserted into your prostate. This allows the radiation to be delivered directly to the cancer.
Brachytherapy is appropriate if you have a slow-growing cancer in its early stages. Sometimes it is combined with EBRT if there is a risk of the cancer spreading beyond the prostate.
If your doctor decides you are a candidate for brachytherapy, you may get either low dose rate or high dose rate. With low dose rate, you have about 100 radiation pellets inserted into your prostate. They are active in your body up to a few months and are not removed.
High dose rate brachytherapy involves putting pellets in for just a few minutes for several treatments over the course of a couple of days. The pellets are removed after each treatment.
What are the side effects of radiation therapy?
Risks vary depending on the strength of your treatment. Many side effects are temporary, like cramping, bloody urine and fatigue. You may have red areas that resemble a sunburn on the skin that was exposed to the radiation.
Other side effects may be more long-lasting, like incontinence, sexual dysfunction and thickened skin. There is also an increased risk of new cancers appearing where you received the radiation, but this risk is very small.