Childhood Cancer ~ A General Guide for Parents Part V (iii): Radiation Therapy
In Part 1 of this series we explained that this series of articles is not meant to be medical advice, but a guide that may help you as a parent of a newly diagnosed child with cancer cope just a bit better. Information is knowledge, and never more so than when you are dealing with childhood cancer!
These articles are meant to help you be the key part of your child’s treatment that you will need to be. Take what works for you according to your situation and your child’s temperament, personality, fears, strengths, and how they deal with adversity, and leave what does not pertain to your situation.
Part 5 will deal with Different Types of Treatment and Possible Side-Effects of that treatment. As this is quite a long section, I will split it into 5(i) Surgery 5(ii) Chemotherapy 5(iii) Radiation Therapy 5(iv) Immunotherapy and 5(v) Bone Marrow and Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Transplants.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine treatment (CAM) is very involved and will contain a lot of information, so that will be dealt with separately in Part 6 of this series of articles
Childhood Cancer Treatment
Treatment for childhood cancer is not the same for every patient; a treatment plan is drawn up for each individual according to various factors.
Your child’s doctor and oncology treatment team will collaborate to draw up a treatment plan based on the type of cancer, the stage of the disease, your child’s general health, your child’s age, and various other factors.
Once the team has all the facts, a detailed treatment plan will be drawn up, outlining the exact treatment your child will receive, how often the treatment will be given, and how long the treatment will last.
Treatment plans are strictly individualised, so even children with the same type of cancer may not get exactly the same type of treatment. The oncology team will monitor your child’s response to the treatment, and may change the treatment plan if it seems that the treatment is not working effectively; they may even change the type of treatment completely.
Cancer is not an easy disease to treat, and unfortunately some of the treatments used cause unpleasant or unwanted side-effects such as hair loss, nausea, and diarrhoea. Side effects happen because unfortunately some of the cancer treatments not only kill the cancer cells but can also damage some of the healthy cells.
Bear the following in mind as your child starts their cancer treatment:
- Your child’s doctor will plan the treatment so that your child has as few side effects as possible;
- The type of side effects your child experiences and how bad they are will depend on the kind of drug used, the dosage given, and the way your child’s body reacts;
- There are various ways to lessen your child’s side effects. Talk to the treatment team about things that can be done before, during, and after treatment to make your child more comfortable;
- Sometimes the team may decide to lower the treatment dosage slightly to help lessen or even eliminate unpleasant side effects. This will generally not make the treatment less able to destroy cancer cells or hurt your child’s chances of recovery; and
- Most side effects go away soon after treatment ends.
Not every child will suffer side-effects, and some children get very few. Side-effects will differ from child to child, even those who are receiving the same treatment. Your child’s doctor will be able to tell you what side-effects you can expect your child to possibly have based on the treatment plan, and how to deal with them should they occur.
In the previous article we dealt with Chemotherapy and all it entails; this article will deal with Radiation Therapy as a treatment for your child’s cancer and all it entails.
Radiation Therapy is treatment that uses high-energy rays to damage or destroy cancer cells. Radiation therapy, like surgery, is a local therapy, which means that only the area where the tumour occurs is treated. The treatment destroys cancer cells in the treated area.
Radiation therapy may be used before surgery to shrink a tumour; it could also be used after surgery to stop the growth of cancer cells that remain.
How Radiation Therapy Works
Every single cell in the human body, including cancer cells, contains DNA, which tells the cells how to grow. The hi-energy rays used in radiation therapy target the DNA in the cancerous cells, causing them to die before cells are made. As the cancer cells die off, the tumour will shrink.
Getting Ready for Radiation Therapy
A radiologist, or doctor who specialises in radiation treatment, will explain the treatment to both you and your child before the time. The doctor will mark the exact areas on your child’s body where the radiation will be directed; this ensures that the radiation treatment is given in the same place each time (radiation therapy is a series of treatments). The markings are actually like small tattoos, but the skin is pricked very gently and this does not hurt.
The skin may become tender during radiation treatment, but it is important to avoid using lotions or soaps near the markings or the part of the body where the treatment is taking place. If the area becomes sore, speak to the radiation team about what can be done to bring relief.
Some children may find the machinery used for radiation treatment a bit scary. Speak to the doctor and ask if you and your child can be given a tour of the area before the first treatment so that the child can become familiar with the machinery.
What Happens During Radiation Therapy
To avoid you being exposed to radiation, you will not be allowed to be in the room with your child during radiation treatments. Parts of your child’s body that are not being treated will be protected with lead shields. Your child does not become radioactive through radiation therapy, so you need not fear being near him or her.
Radiation Therapy is similar to getting an x-ray, so it does not hurt ~ your child will just have to hold still longer than they do for an x-ray. Some children are very active and find it difficult to keep still, so the doctor may opt to give this type of child some medicine to either relax or put him or her to sleep for the duration of the treatment.
Side Effects of Radiation Therapy
The high doses of radiation used in radiation therapy to kill the cancer cells may also damage some of the healthy cells, which may cause side effects. The side effect depends on the treatment dose and the part of the body that is being treated.
The most common side effects of radiation therapy are listed in the following table:
Long-Term Side Effects of Radiation Therapy
Your child may also experience some long-term side effects from radiation treatment later on. Radiation to the brain could cause learning and coordination problems, especially in very young children. Because of this, it may be a good idea to consider neuropsychological testing following treatment.
Radiation therapy could also affect your child’s growth, and can sometimes result in a second cancer forming in the treated area years after treatment. Because of this, your doctor may delay radiation treatment or prefer to use another form of treatment such as chemotherapy.
Remember, if you are not sure of anything, speak to a professional on your child’s oncology treatment team; they will be only too glad to help give you information or allay any fears you or your child may have regarding the treatment.
You are not alone in this; there are many individuals out there able and willing to lend a hand, some support, or even just listen – do not be afraid to reach out for help!
Do some research on the internet, reach out to an organisation like Little Fighters Cancer Trust for a bit of support and information and/or access to resources that will help you find out more and make an informed decision regarding your child’s treatment.
Part V (iv) of this series will deal with “Immunotherapy”