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Chemotherapy vs. Radiation: 10 Questions Every Patient Should Ask

chemotherapy vs. radiation

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is life-changing. It can trigger feelings of anxiety, depression, and fear. Many patients feel overwhelmed by the many available treatment options and are afraid to make the wrong decision. While some rely solely on their oncologist’s recommendations, patients must be involved in choosing their course of treatment. This is especially true when you’re comparing chemotherapy vs. radiation treatments.

Depending on the form of cancer you have and how aggressive it is, both treatment options may not be available to you. But because all cancers involve rapidly dividing cells, both treatments share the same objective: to cure, control, and reduce cancer as well as its symptoms. If you’re not sure whether chemotherapy or radiation is right for you, here are 10 questions every patient should ask before embarking on a treatment plan.

1. Chemotherapy vs. radiation: What’s the difference?

The difference is that chemotherapy affects every cell in your body while radiation treats just one body part or area. Chemotherapy helps destroy cancer cells, and it spreads throughout your entire bloodstream. Chemo drugs also kill any cancer cells that have metastasized (i.e., spread beyond the initially affected tissue or organ). Since cytotoxic drugs like Taxotere and Taxol don’t distinguish between healthy, normal cells and cancer, chemo often destroys both. As a result, patients usually suffer uncomfortable side effects such as nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, and hair loss.

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to shrink tumors and kills cancer cells by damaging their DNA. However, your oncologist can aim the radiation treatment’s rays directly onto cancer-affected areas. Although radiation is isolated and doesn’t spread through the rest of your body, it may also damage nearby normal cells.

2. What are the survival rates for chemotherapy vs. radiation?

Survival rates depend entirely on your cancer type and whether it metastasizes or not. Radiation therapy is more effective than chemotherapy in stage II testicular cancer, while chemotherapy is more effective in treating children. In fact, many oncologists opt to combine the two for the best possible outcome. Ask your doctor to explain which treatment option works best for your particular form and stage of cancer.

3. How do doctors administer chemotherapy vs. radiation?

Chemotherapy is administered intravenously or given orally in pill form. One or more cytotoxic anti-neoplastic drugs may be given regularly over the course of a few weeks. Radiation targets a specific tumor or location where cancer cells are present using beams of radiation passing through your skin.

4. Which chemotherapy drug combinations work best?

Many chemotherapy treatments are administered through a “cocktail” that combines multiple intravenous drugs. This treatment approach is considered one of the most effective, and will vary based on your form of cancer. An example of one very popular combination chemotherapy regimen for treating breast cancer is TAC (Taxotere, Adriamycin and Cyclophosphamide). Since both Taxol and Taxotere are drugs in the taxane class, either may be used in the TAC drug cocktail. If your doctor recommends Taxotere, be sure to ask about the irreversible, permanent hair loss that affects 10-15% of patients.

5. How long can I expect chemotherapy vs. radiation treatment to last?

During chemotherapy, you’ll spend several minutes to hours at a time in a clinic or hospital taking intravenous medication. Your doctor determines how long you must stay. Afterwards, you can expect to experience a variety of chemo-related side effects. Radiation therapy typically involves several 15-minute treatment sessions over the course of three to nine weeks. Ask your doctor what to expect from your specific treatment sessions.

6. What are some common chemotherapy side effects?

Chemotherapy treatment itself isn’t necessarily painful or invasive. However, any side effects associated with chemo drugs can be. Because healthy cells are also affected, chemo patients may experience the following side effects:

  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle pain
  • Stomach pain
  • Pain from nerve damage affecting any extremities
  • Mouth and throat sores
  • Diarrhea, constipation
  • Nervous system effects
  • Appetite loss
  • Hair loss

7. What are some common radiation side effects?

Because radiation therapy is localized, it has a completely different set of side effects. Some frequently reported radiation side effects include:

  • Skin irritation, such as itching, dryness, bleeding, blistering, and peeling
  • Fatigue (many patients report feeling constantly exhausted)
  • Nausea
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath

8. How do I sign up for a clinical trial?

Most people participate in clinical trials based on their doctor’s recommendation. That said, you can also research clinical trial opportunities on your own. The best resources for conducting this type of research include:

  • The National Cancer Institute (NCI). This database belongs to a federal agency that funds most cancer clinical trials in the U.S. You can find information on both open and closed clinical trials supported by the NCI.
  • CenterWatch.com. This listing service features a database filled with thousands of active clinical trials where you can sign up to volunteer.

9. What’s my next course of treatment if this route fails?

Ask your doctor for a Plan B treatment recommendation if either chemotherapy or radiation fails to completely eliminate your cancer. Your oncologist should be able to provide you with next steps to take in case your initial treatment doesn’t work.

10. Will my hair grow back after chemotherapy?

Hair growth usually returns back to its normal rate within weeks or months of ending your chemotherapy regimen. But for patients whose chemo treatment includes Taxotere, hair loss may be both permanent and irreversible. Talk to your doctor about substituting Taxol for Taxotere, which studies show doesn’t cause permanent alopecia (hair loss).

If either you or a loved one experienced lasting hair loss after completing chemotherapy with Taxotere, you may have a case. Fill out your free Taxotere claim review today to see if you may qualify for financial compensation from the manufacturer.