Esophageal Cancer (cont.)

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. It affects cells only in the treated area.

Radiation therapy may be used before or after surgery. Or it may be used instead of surgery. Radiation therapy is usually given with chemotherapy to treat esophageal cancer.

Doctors use two types of radiation therapy to treat esophageal cancer. Some people receive both types:

  • External radiation therapy: The radiation comes from a large machine outside the body. The machine aims radiation at your cancer. You may go to a hospital or clinic for treatment. Treatments are usually 5 days a week for several weeks.
  • Internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy): The doctor numbs your throat with an anesthetic spray and gives you medicine to help you relax. The doctor puts a tube into your esophagus. The radiation comes from the tube. Once the tube is removed, no radioactivity is left in your body. Usually, only a single treatment is done.

Side effects depend mainly on the dose and type of radiation. External radiation therapy to the chest and abdomen may cause a sore throat, pain similar to heartburn, or pain in the stomach or the intestine. You may have nausea and diarrhea. Your health care team can give you medicines to prevent or control these problems.

Also, your skin in the treated area may become red, dry, and tender. You may lose hair in the treated area. A much less common side effect of radiation therapy aimed at the chest is harm to the lung, heart, or spinal cord.

You are likely to be very tired during radiation therapy, especially in the later weeks of external radiation therapy. You may also continue to feel very tired for a few weeks after radiation therapy is completed. Resting is important, but doctors usually advise patients to try to stay as active as they can.

Radiation therapy can lead to problems with swallowing. For example, sometimes radiation therapy can harm the esophagus and make it painful for you to swallow. Or, the radiation may cause the esophagus to narrow. Before radiation therapy, a plastic tube may be inserted into the esophagus to keep it open. If radiation therapy leads to a problem with swallowing, it may be hard to eat well. Ask your health care team for help getting good nutrition. See the Nutrition section for more information.

You may want to ask your doctor these questions before having radiation therapy:

  • Which type of radiation therapy can I consider? Are both types an option for me?
  • When will treatment start? When will it end? How often will I have treatments?
  • Will I need to stay in the hospital?
  • What can I do to take care of myself before, during, and after treatment?
  • How will I feel during treatment? Will I be able to drive myself to and from treatment?
  • How will we know the treatment is working?
  • How will I feel after the radiation therapy?
  • Are there any lasting effects?
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/14/2014

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Esophageal Cancer - Symptoms and Signs Question: What were the symptoms and signs you experienced with esophageal cancer?
Esophageal Cancer - Prognosis Question: What is your esophageal cancer prognosis?
Esophageal Cancer - Types Question: Do you or someone you know have adenocarcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus? Please share your story.
Esophageal Cancer - Risk Factors Question: Do you have any of the risk factors for esophageal cancer? What are they, and what are your concerns?
Esophageal Cancer - Diagnosis Question: What kinds of tests and exams led to a diagnosis of esophageal cancer?
Esophageal Cancer - Treatment Question: What kinds of treatment, including radiation or chemotherapy, did you receive for esophageal cancer?
Esophageal Cancer - Surgery Question: Please describe the surgical experience you or someone you know had for esophageal cancer.
Esophageal Cancer - Second Opinion Question: How did you go about getting a second opinion for your esophageal cancer?
Esophageal Cancer - Follow-Up Care Question: What type of follow-up care did you receive for your esophageal cancer?

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