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Stomach Cancer: Radiation Therapy

Stomach cancer may be treated with radiation therapy. It works by directing strong X-rays at the cancer areas. This destroys cancer cells. A radiation oncologist will create a treatment plan for you. Each person’s plan is different. Your plan will include the type of radiation you’ll have. It will also include how often and for how long you will have the treatment.

How radiation helps

Radiation can help treat stomach cancer in several ways. These include:

  • It can shrink the cancer before surgery. This may help to make the surgery easier.

  • It can destroy any cancer cells that remain after surgery. For this goal, it is often used with anti-cancer medicines (chemotherapy).

  • It can shrink cancer to relieve symptoms of advanced cancer. This may help lessen pain, bleeding, or trouble eating.

Side effects of radiation

Radiation affects normal cells as well as cancer cells. This can cause side effects. The side effects depend on the amount and type of radiation. They may occur during treatment. And they may occur in the weeks or months after it. Side effects may get worse as treatment goes on. They may include:

  • Irritation of the skin near the treatment area

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Diarrhea or stomach cramping

  • Heartburn-like pain

  • Trouble eating

  • Tiredness

Talk with your healthcare team about any side effects you have. Ask them what problems you should watch for and when you need to call them about problems. They may be able to help lessen them. Side effects tend to get better over time after treatment ends and your body heals.

Types of radiation

The type of radion most often used to treat stomach cancer is external beam radiation therapy (ERBT). ERBT sends radiation from a machine outside of your body. It’s like getting an X-ray, except it lasts longer.

There are 2 other methods of giving the treatment. They include:

  • Three-dimensional (3-D) conformal radiation therapy. This aims radiation from several directions. This can lessen the damage to nearby healthy tissue. 

  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). IMRT uses a computer to send certain doses (intensities) of radiation to specific areas of the tumor. This also can reduce the damage to nearby healthy tissue.

Getting ready for radiation

Before your first treatment, you’ll have an appointment to plan for it. This is called simulation. During this appointment:

  • You’ll lie on a table while a radiation therapist uses a machine to find exactly where the radiation will be aimed. The therapist may mark your skin with tiny dots of permanent ink. These are used to aim the radiation at the exact same place each time.

  • You may also have computed tomography (CT) scans or other imaging tests to help locate the cancer.

  • A plastic mold of your body may be made for some types of ERBT. The mold help you stay in the same position for each treatment.

What to expect for your treatment

You’ll receive ERBT at a hospital or clinic. You likely will not have to stay overnight. You may receive treatment 5 days a week. This may last for a few weeks or several months. The length of time depends on the type and dose of radiation recommended by your radiation oncologist.

Each treatment lasts only a few minutes. It’s a lot like getting an X-ray. The machine doesn't touch you during treatment. You may see lights from the machine that are lined up with the marks on your skin. This helps the therapist know you’re in the right position. The therapist will leave the room while the machine sends radiation to your tumor. During this time, he or she can see you, hear you, and talk to you. When the machine sends radiation to your tumor, you will need to be very still, but you don’t have to hold your breath.

Your radiation oncologist or nurse can tell you what to expect during and after treatment.

Online Medical Reviewer: Gersten, Todd, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Date Last Reviewed: 7/1/2016
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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