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Chemotherapy and Radiation – Pros and Cons

In addition to surgical procedures, chemotherapy and radiation are the most commonly used forms of treatment for cancer.  We will focus on the pros and cons of chemotherapy vs. radiation.  

Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment which administers powerful anti-cancer drugs into the body.  These drugs have been specially designed to detect cancer cells and kill them.  It normally does so by reacting to cells which exhibit unusually fast growth rates and then disrupt these processes so that the cells eventually die.   

There are over 50 different chemotherapy drugs which may be used and this treatment can be effective in treating over 200 different kinds of cancer.  The drugs are administered in most cases either orally or intravenously over multiple sessions.  The primary goal of chemotherapy is to find all traces of the cancer cells and destroy them.  In this way it can help to cure the disease and possibly lower the chances of cancer reappearing at a later time.  It can also be used to prolong life for advanced cases of cancer where there are minimal options for a complete cure. 

One of the main drawbacks to this type of treatment concerns the anti-cancer drugs themselves.  They are designed to find, attack and ultimately destroy cells which exhibit rapid growth rates since that is an easily distinguishable different from most normal cells.  The problem is that there are still some healthy cells which also show rapid growth rates.  In this way they can be attacked by the anti-cancer drugs as well such that healthy tissues and cells will be affected as well.  This can cause a number of side effects and complications including: 

  • Hair loss
  • Anemia 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Skin reactions 

There may be other complications including cardiotoxicity and possible liver damage since the drugs are processed through both of these organs as well.  There is also the risk of kidney damage and ear damage as a result of withdrawal from these anti-cancer drugs.  Doctors administer and monitor these treatments very carefully in order to achieve the best results with limited complications and side effects.  But the risks are certainly there. 


Radiation therapy tends to be easier on the body than chemotherapy.  It applies a special beam of x-rays to specific areas where cancer is present with the goal of destroying the cancer cells there.  This treatment can be more effective in cases where the radioactive beam can be focused on the specific areas of cancer growth.  Some patients report that radiation therapy can be less painful than chemotherapy. 

But there are many types of cancer for which radiation therapy is not particularly effective.  If the cancer is more widespread then it usually has limited benefit.  And this treatment option does have side effects as well.  Some of the side effects are caused by the radiation and may not appear until the treatment has been concluded.  It has been found that the application of the radiation itself may increase the risk of a cancer reoccurrence at a later time. 

And radiation therapy which is administered externally can cause damage to the skin in the area where the rays enter the body.  Other side effects typically include fatigue and sluggishness, loss of appetite, and changes in blood chemistry. 

Sometimes both types of treatments can be used together to increase the overall effectiveness.  But each type has its own set of benefits and drawbacks and it consider each option carefully and make an informed decision based on your doctor’s recommendations.