Oct 11, 2023 - Health

"Toxic": Radiation therapy descriptions can scare cancer patients away

Illustration of a caduceus with uneven wings

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Radiation therapy has saved countless lives, but the way its effects are commonly described as "brutal" or "toxic" makes some cancer patients avoid it as an option, according to a commentary published in JAMA Oncology.

What they're saying: While radiation therapy can leave damaging side effects, major improvements have made it safer, more precise and more effective, Narek Shaverdian, an author of the viewpoint and a radiation oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, told Axios.

  • "Radiation therapy is one of the most advanced tools we have to treat cancer," Shaverdian said. "But the focus is rarely on the benefits of this tremendous tool."

Between the lines: Radiation is connected in popular culture with calamities like war, evacuations, natural disasters and birth defects, the authors write.

  • But using descriptions like "brutal" amps up patient fears, making them more likely to see radiation therapy as uniquely harmful among cancer treatments, with few upsides.
  • In fact, the therapies can allow patients to undergo surgeries that preserve limbs and breast tissue, and offer symptom relief to some and cures to others, the authors wrote.
  • "What is often missed — and should be clear — is the profound benefit of modern radiotherapy," they wrote.

Reality check: Cancer care is constantly being refined with new treatments, better biomarkers and improved imaging that could lessen the need for intense therapies.

  • Studies have shown it's possible to omit radiation for some low-risk or early-stage cases of lymphoma, breast cancer and thyroid cancer with little or no difference in outcomes, STAT recently wrote.
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