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Why Do We Use Chemotherapy with Radiation?

February 01, 2023

By Sarah Joy Patterson-Webb MSN, APRN, AGACNP-BC

Your doctors may recommend that you receive chemotherapy while you are receiving radiation treatment. You may see or hear this be called concurrent treatment, concomitant treatment or chemoradiation therapy. Most people are curious, “Why do I need both?” The simple answer is that they work in two very different ways. Radiation uses high energy photon beams to destroy cancer cells in a limited area of the body with a visible tumor or that is at high risk to have residual cancer cells. Chemotherapy is systemic treatment, which means it travels all over the body. Chemotherapy is useful with radiation because it often will sensitize the cancer cells to die more quickly from radiation treatments, thereby helping to make the radiation more effective.


When Is Chemoradiation Given?

Combined chemoradiation may be given:

  • Before a surgery to help kill or shrink the cancer cells to improve the chances of a successful surgery.
  • After a surgery to kill off cancer cells that were left behind or to reduce a high risk of the cancer coming back somewhere else.
  • With the intent to cure a cancer that is in an area of the body too dangerous or damaging to remove with surgery.

What Are the Side Effects Like With Chemoradiation?

Treatment side effects will depend on the type of chemotherapy used and the part of the body being treated. You will be watched very closely and seen often by both your medical and radiation oncologist so that any side effects are addressed right away.

How Is Chemotherapy Given?

Chemotherapy may be given as a pill or through an IV into a vein or chest port. Some people need a continuous infusion pump and others need infusions every one, two, or three weeks. Some people will even take a chemotherapy pill, instead of infused treatments. The frequency will be based on the type of chemotherapy that you receive and how you are feeling. Your medical oncologist will advise you on the best choice for your type of cancer and health condition.

How Is Radiation Therapy Given?

Radiation treatments are typically given with a machine that produces the invisible beam, which is shaped and directed into the body as your radiation oncologist designs. Treatments are typically given once per day, Monday – Friday, over the course of several weeks. You will see your radiation therapist, who delivers the planned treatment, at each daily appointment. At least once a week, you will see a radiation oncologist and radiation nurse for your “On Treatment Visit” or “OTV”. During these appointments, we will check your vital signs and weight, general health, and review your treatment tolerance and response. Any questions or concerns are often answered at these visits. You may address any concerns between your weekly physician visits with the radiation therapist or nurse at your appointments or by phone.


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