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Radiation Therapy for Ovarian Cancer

Radiation therapy is one of many options that doctors use to treat ovarian cancer. Other therapies include surgery, chemotherapy, and newer options like hormone therapy and targeted treatments. Each treatment may be used on its own or in combination with others.

Preparing a patient for radiation therapy

Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, is rarely used in the U.S. as a primary treatment for ovarian cancer. In some instances, your doctor may recommend it after surgery as a way to rid the pelvic area of potential cancer cells. But even using it for that purpose has been now phased out in favor of chemotherapy, an approach based on more  potent drugs.

Radiation may  be used to ease pain, bleeding, and other problems caused by the disease, or to shrink tumors in the colon or nearby organs before surgery. You'll want to ask your doctor if radiation therapy is the right choice for you.

How radiation therapy works

Radiation therapy kills cancer cells with the use of high energy X-rays. The type most often used for ovarian cancer is called external beam radiation. In this type of radiation therapy, a machine called a linear accelerator focuses the radiation onto the cancer inside the body.

In the past, two methods of internal radiation therapy were often used for treating ovarian cancer. These were called brachytherapy and radioactive phosphorus, and they involved placing radioactive materials inside the body. Brachytherapy is rarely done anymore, and radioactive phosphorus is no longer used as part of standard treatment for ovarian cancer.

What to expect from radiation therapy

The process of actually receiving radiation therapy is quite easy when compared with many other medical procedures. When it's given, it's not that different from receiving a standard X-ray, and the exposure only lasts a few minutes. In fact, most of your appointment time for radiation therapy will probably be spent getting you in the right position in order to receive the therapy effectively.

Radiation therapy has to be done frequently to be effective. The therapy is typically given five days a week for several weeks in a row. The doctor who will give you radiation therapy is known as a radiation oncologist.

Radiation therapy is usually given at a hospital or clinic, and it will last for just a few minutes per session. The treatment itself is not painful, although you may feel some side effects from radiation therapy. One of the most common is irritated skin at the radiation site. Your skin may look sunburned for some months or feel dry and extremely tender. Fatigue, nausea, severe abdominal cramps, and diarrhea are other typical symptoms. These tend to fade slowly after treatment.

Be sure to ask your doctor for suggestions to relieve these symptoms, should you experience any of them. 

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