Radiation for Comfort Care

A safe, effective way to relieve the symptoms of cancer.

Written by: Dr. Meakin

A large part of the treatments at SERO Cancer Centers are dedicated to rapidly relieving symptoms such as pain, bleeding, shortness of breath, confusion, and disability caused by cancer’s impact on the body. Radiation therapy is ideal for this purpose as it works quickly and noninvasively (without surgery or injections) to achieve relief and palliation. SERO physicians are trained to see comfort interventions as an emergency and act quickly on behalf of the patient and families. Our physicians are uniquely trained in the use of medications and other aids to synergistically work with radiation to relieve pain and symptoms caused by cancer.

Radiation is frequently used for metastasis to the brain to relieve headache, confusion, weakness or paralysis caused by cancer. Radiation treatment to the brain is frequently done with the patient immobilized in a plastic mesh mask so that no marks need to be placed on the skin of the face of the patient. For solitary or just a few lesions, sometimes focal targeted treatment is delivered in a single dose for rapid ablation. When many lesions are present, a series of treatments are generally given to the whole brain over 10 to 15 short 15 minutes visits.

Radiation is frequently used to relieve pain and structural impairment for cancer spread to bones. This treatment frequently offers quick pain relief as the tumor shrinks and reduces pressure on the sensitive nerves around the bone and adjacent muscles. Treatment is generally given in as few as one visit or 10 to 15 visits depending on the site of the body, tumor type, and condition of the patient. Frequently treatment can be given again if pain returns from possible tumor re growth months later. Many SERO physicians are also trained in the use of injectable radioisotopes that travel to targeted areas of cancerous bone involvement and deliver radiation directly through the bloodstream. These treatments can affect many sites of bone involvement in a single injection with very low side effects. A common product used is Samarium 153 which can be used for many types of cancer. A more recently developed product unique for prostate cancer is called Xofigo or Radium 223. Xofigo is generally used in a series of six injections with a very high rate of success and minimal side effects.

Radiation therapy is frequently used emergently to treat the spine when cancer spread possibly threatens the spinal cord. This is a true emergency as blood flow and nerve function disruption from tumor compression can quickly lead to permanent numbness and paralysis. Our physicians are trained to assess neurologic functioning and initiate the proper test urgently with our neurologic colleagues to arrest this condition when it occurs. Failure to act quickly may lead to loss of the ability to walk or even quadriplegia. Severe spine pain is usually the first symptom followed by numbness and weakness. Our front desk staff understands this concern and will work patients in immediately if the symptoms are suspected. Treatment with radiation, or surgery followed by radiation is virtually always initiated within 24 hours to improve the opportunity for recovery of neurologic function.

Radiation therapy is also delivered to relieve compression to the airways of the lung, or vascular system above the heart. Sometimes airway compression is accompanied by bleeding manifested by blood in the mucus. Both these issues are relative indications for urgent evaluation by our trained staff. Radiation to the region of the thorax where tumor invasion is causing the compression can rapidly relieve of shortness of breath, vascular blockage, and coughing up of blood. Many times the symptoms improve after two treatments and a typical course may involve 10 to 14 treatments. Delaying intervention from airway compression can sometimes lead to pneumonia and collapse the lung that is not reversible. SERO physicians and staff are trained to look out for this problem in the patient’s at risk for it. We encourage all our patients to frequently report new respiratory symptoms to our staff.

Radiation therapy is also sometimes used for painful liver metastasis, painful or bleeding skin or lymph node metastasis, and advanced tumors of the female gynecologic tract when bleeding and pain are present. These situations require thoughtful intervention by our staff to target the painful metastasis or primary tumor to relieve symptoms while not harming normal organ function. Generally a few doses can relieve bleeding and pain quickly providing much needed comfort to the patient. Non-radiation oncology physicians might not be aware of these options of care, so we encourage multidiscipline or team approach to your care.

Providing comfort care for our cancer patients is a top priority at all our SERO Cancer Center sites. Many of our physicians have served on local hospice boards, participated in the training of nurses and therapists on issues of comfort care, and see symptom relief and palliation as equally important as curative efforts. Our physicians and staff are equipped with access not only to the most modern radiation technology, up-to-date medications, but also complementary services that contribute favorably to patient quality-of-life and adjustment to the disease. SERO Cancer Treatment Centers use the vast array of support services such as counselors, nutritionist, massage and physical therapist, lymph edema experts, support groups, pet therapy, and many others to serve the needs of our patients and their families. Please inquire about these services.