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Primary Bone Cancer: Radiation Therapy

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy uses strong radiation beams from X-rays or particles to kill cancer cells.

When radiation therapy is used

Radiation therapy can be part of the treatment for some types of primary bone cancers (cancers that start in the bones). For example, it is often part of the treatment for Ewing sarcomas. There are several reasons your healthcare provider may recommend this treatment:

  • To try to shrink a tumor before surgery. This may make it easier to remove the tumor. It also might reduce the amount of tissue removed during surgery. When radiation is used before surgery, it’s called a neoadjuvant therapy.

  • To try to kill any cancer cells left after surgery. When radiation is used after surgery, it’s called an adjuvant therapy. This may be done if your healthcare provider is not sure all the cancer cells were removed. 

  • To ease symptoms. Radiation may be used to help manage symptoms that are caused by tumors that can't be treated with surgery or that have spread to other organs.

For most bone cancers, radiation therapy is not the main treatment. Surgery is generally the main treatment. But some cancers can’t be removed with surgery. And some people are not healthy enough to have surgery.  

To plan your whole treatment strategy, consult with your team of cancer specialists. This might include a surgeon, radiation oncologist, and medical oncologist.

What happens during radiation therapy

The most common way to get radiation for bone cancer is from a machine outside your body that sends out an invisible X-ray beam. This is called external beam radiation therapy (EBRT).

Sometimes special types of EBRT are used to try to limit the doses of radiation that can get to nearby normal cells:

  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). IMRT uses a computer to control both the direction and the strength (intensity) of the radiation. This allows the healthcare provider to give high doese of radiation to the tumor. It also can lessen the side effects on healthy tissue.

  • Proton beam therapy. This newer type of treatment uses proton beams instead of X-rays. Protons do less damage to normal, healthy cells as they pass through them. This type of treatment may lead to fewer side effects.

A healthcare provider who specializes in cancer and radiation is called a radiation oncologist. He or she works with you to determine the kind of radiation you need. This healthcare provider also determines the dose and how long you need the therapy.

You will usually have radiation therapy as an outpatient in a hospital or a clinic. This means you will be able to go home the same day. Radiation is often given once a day, 5 days a week, for several weeks.

Getting ready for EBRT

Before your first radiation treatment, you will have a session to plan for the treatment. This is called simulation. During this appointment:

  • You may have imaging scans to help locate the cancer.

  • You’ll lie still 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 semi-permanent ink. These are used to aim the radiation at the exact same place each time. 

  • You may have a plastic mold made of your body. The mold puts you into the same position for each treatment and helps keep you from moving during the treatment. 

What to expect for your treatment

On the days you get radiation treatment, you’ll lie on a table while the machine is placed over you. The machine will move around you, but it won't touch you. Each treatment is much like getting an X-ray, only longer. Radiation treatment doesn't hurt.

On the day of treatment, you are carefully put into the right position. You may see lights from the machine lined up with the marks on your skin. These help the therapist know you are 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 do not have to hold your breath.

Side effects of EBRT

Radiation therapy affects cancer cells. But it can also affect normal cells. This can cause side effects. The side effects from radiation are usually limited to the area being treated. Some people have few or no side effects. But if you do have them, your healthcare provider may change the dose of your radiation or how often you get treatment. Or your provider may stop treatment until the side effects decrease or stop. Be sure to tell your healthcare provider about any symptoms you have.

Possible short-term side effects

These are some of the common short-term side effects:

  • Skin irritation, sores, or changes in areas that get radiation

  • Nausea or diarrhea (for radiation to the abdomen or pelvis)

  • Bladder irritation, which can make you feel that you have to urinate often. Or it may cause pain or burning when you urinate (for radiation to the pelvis).

  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue)

  • Low blood counts, as seen on a blood test

If you have any of these side effects, talk with your healthcare provider. Talk with your provider about the best ways to deal with them and how to know when they become serious. Often these side effects go away a few weeks after you stop getting treatment.

Possible long-term side effects

Radiation therapy can also cause some long-term side effects. The effects depend on where the radiation was aimed. This can be a special concern in treating bone cancer, which often affects children, teens, or young adults. These long-term side effects may include:

  • Slowed bone growth. Radiation can slow bone growth in children because their bones are still growing. For example, radiation can cause one leg to be shorter than the other. This is not as much of a concern in older teens or adults, whose bones are no longer growing.

  • Second cancers. Cancers are more likely to form in areas that have received radiation. These cancers may develop even decades after treatment.

  • Reduced fertility. Radiation to the pelvis can damage reproductive organs. This could affect fertility later in life.

  • Damage to other organs. Organs such as the heart or lungs might be affected by radiation to the chest.

Talk with your healthcare provider about what you can expect treatment to be like and the side effects you should watch for. Be sure you know now to get help any time, including after office hours, on weekends, and on holidays. 

Online Medical Reviewer: LoCicero, Richard, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2018
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 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.