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Radio therapy myths debunked


By Michelle Madzudzo
IT was very difficult to pen this article knowing the current situation of radiotherapy services in the country; the functionality and availability of radiotherapy services are a ray of hope for the cancer patient.

Nevertheless we have to keep the dialogue alive as we await the revival of radiotherapy services in the public sector and need to appreciate all the efforts over the years we have managed to save the lives of many using radiotherapy.

June is internationally known as cancer survivors’ month. A survivor is anyone living with, through and beyond cancer. Contrary to popular belief, cancer is not a death sentence, there are those who go through the cancer trajectory and come out strong. There is, indeed, life after cancer.

I am proud to have been a radiation therapist saving lives in Zimbabwe for the past 10 years.

Being one of the allied health professions often forgotten by the public and media in a world where the national health system seems to consist of only doctors and nurses, the unsung heroes in the fight against cancer continue to save lives and have hope that we will have more cancer success stories in the country the moment we resume radiotherapy services at our public health institutions.

As radiation therapists we reflect on how we have been working hard over the years to ensure reliable, safe and consistent services are rendered at our institutions.

However, it is sad that most of the cancer patients may not show up for treatment or come later on when alternative treatments have failed.

Let me reiterate that radiation therapists are there to deliver radiotherapy treatment so as to save lives. We are here to give you life after cancer.

As professionals we also like to think outside the box. As clinicians we would rather wait for people to come to the hospitals as our patients, but we also have endeavoured on an awareness drive to educate the nation about cancer and its related issues. Today, the focus is on radiotherapy, the treatment choice that seems to be shrouded in mystery.

Radiation therapy (RT), commonly known as kupisa/kutshisa in venecular language is the treatment of cancer and non-cancerous cells using ionising radiation in the form of high X-rays and gamma rays. It is either given radically to achieve cure or for palliation in advanced disease to ease symptoms and improve the quality of life of the patient.

The patients are treated with very big machines called linear accelerators .and it is normally given daily from Monday to Friday with breaks during weekends until the treatment is finished depending on the number of days a patient is given.

In Zimbabwe, we have radiotherapy centres at Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals in Harare and Mpilo Central Hospital in Bulawayo, and a private cancer facility Oncocare in Newlands, Harare, which is the only functional facility at the moment in the country.

When it comes to something as important as radiation therapy in cancer treatment, getting to the bottom of some of the myths could help people to make informed decisions in their battle against cancer.

As a senior radiation therapist with indepth knowledge and expertise in the field of radiation therapy, I am here to dispel any myths and misconceptions you may have regarding radiation therapy.

Myth 1: Radiation is painful

The fact that radiation therapy is commonly called kupisa/kutshisa in our vernacular language has made many assume that the treatment results in a burning sensation and must be very painful.

Receiving radiation is not painful. The delivery process cannot be felt and is completely painless.

However, after a few weeks there can be skin soreness and dryness over the treated area, but the side effects are temporary.

Mtyh 2: Radiation therapy will cause me to lose my hair

Hair loss on the head is typically only a risk factor if you are receiving radiation therapy to the brain. In fact, hair loss on the head is a more common side effect of chemotherapy, not radiation therapy.

There are certain chemotherapy drugs that make hair fall, so prior treatment patients are advised to shave their heads bald, but the hair normally grows back after treatment.

Myth 3: Radiation therapy increases my chances of developing more cancers

The risk of a second cancer from radiation treatments is very low and a very late potential side effect of radiation that can occur later. For adults, the risk of developing a radiation-induced cancer is very small if not insignificant.

This second cancer risk is most often outweighed by the benefit of treating the active known cancer.

At both centres, each patient works with his or her doctor to understand any late side effects of radiation therapy and all the risks versus benefit to make an informed decision about your course of cancer care.

Myth 4: Radiation therapy causes me to be more radioactive

Radiotherapy, both external and internal, does not involve leaving any radioactive materials in the body, so the patient will not be radioactive after treatment, and it is perfectly safe to be around loved ones.

Myth 5: Radiotherapy will cause cancer to spread and kill me

It is a fact that about 80% of our cancer patients present themselves at the radiotherapy institutions when the cancer is at an advanced stage.

Radiotherapy is very frequently given late in the course of cancer to palliate symptoms, often after the cancer has turned resistant to chemotherapy and has spread widely or when the patient is too frail to receive any other therapy. The terminal cancer will take its natural course no matter what is done.

In such cases, relatives may form a misunderstanding that radiotherapy given soon before death caused the tumour to progress and the patient to die.

This is untrue. A good prognosis is the result of treating cancer at earlier stages. We encourage early detection and treatment to save lives and have more cancer survivors.

Wrong ideas about radiotherapy can lead to needless worry and even hinder good treatment decisions.

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