Radiation Isn't a Cancer Cure

Lung cancer patients in later stages often misunderstand radiation to be a cure

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) When lung cancer is metastatic, it has spread to another part of the body. When cancer is at this advanced stage, radiation can ease pain and other symptoms but not cure the disease.

Recently, scientists reported that close to two-thirds of patients with advanced stage cancer did not understand that radiation therapy was not going to cure their disease.

“In order to help patients make informed decisions about radiation treatments near the end of life, health care providers need to improve communication,” said the lead scientist. She believes patients need a better understanding about the goals and limitations of treatments.

"Research the benefits of all therapies."

Aileen Chen, MD, lead author of the study and a radiation oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, analyzed survey data from 384 patients who were diagnosed with stage IIIB or IV lung cancer between 2003 and 2005. Patients were all age 21 and older.

The survey offered information on patient beliefs regarding the effectiveness of radiation therapy (RT). RT uses high-energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells.

Dr. Chen and her colleagues found that 78 percent of patients believed that RT was likely to help them live longer. About 67 percent believed that RT was likely to help them with problems or symptoms resulting from their cancer.

Radiation therapy can help relieve lung cancer symptoms, such as pain, shortness of breath, and coughing up of blood (hemoptysis).

Researchers were concerned, however, that 64 percent thought that RT might cure their disease.

“Our study found that, though most lung cancer patients are optimistic about the effectiveness of radiation therapy in relieving symptoms and prolonging life, many have inaccurate beliefs about the ability of palliative RT to cure their cancer,” said Dr. Chen.

Patients with metastatic lung cancer survive less than one year, on average, and fewer than five percent survive five years, according to the study.

Dr. Chen stressed that this lack of understanding about radiation therapy may prompt patients to choose intensive care that can “reduce patients’ quality of life and lead to significant time and financial burdens for patients and their families.”

Skin irritation and fatigue are common side effects from lung cancer radiation treatments. Some patients may experience pain or difficulty in swallowing (esophagitis), hair loss and digestive problems.

A 2009 study from the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center found that RT costs vary widely. Price range from around $1,700 for a single treatment with conventional radiation techniques to more than $16,000 for four treatments using a targeted robotic system of radiation delivery called Cyberknife.

This preliminary study was presented in October at the annual meeting of the American Society for Radiation Oncology in Boston.

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Review Date: 
November 19, 2012
Last Updated:
November 26, 2012