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Radiation Treatment for Thyroid Cancer

When treating thyroid cancer with radiation, this often involves external radiation therapy. This method uses a large machine outside of the body to aim radiation at the tumor. It is usually administered five days a week for five to seven weeks. Side effects can include fatigue; hair loss in the treated area; and red, dry, tender, and itchy skin in the treated area.

What Is Radiation Treatment for Thyroid Cancer?

Radiation treatment (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells. Like surgery for thyroid cancer, radiation treatment is local therapy, which means that it only affects cancer cells in the treated area. Doctors use external radiation to treat thyroid cancer. External radiation uses a large machine outside of the body to aim radiation at the tumor.
Most people who receive external radiation are treated as an outpatient, five days a week for five to seven weeks. This schedule helps protect healthy cells and tissues by spreading out the total dose of radiation.

Side Effects of Treating Thyroid Cancer With Radiation

The side effects of radiation treatment for thyroid cancer will depend on the dose and the part of the body that is treated. People are likely to become quite tired during radiation treatment, especially in the later weeks. Although resting is important, doctors usually advise their patients to try to stay as active as they can.
Other side effects of external radiation can include:
  • Permanent darkening or "bronzing" of the skin in the treated area
  • Hair loss in the treated area
  • Skin that becomes red, dry, tender, and itchy.
These problems are usually temporary, and doctors can suggest ways to relieve them.
When the neck is treated with external radiation therapy, people may feel hoarse or have trouble swallowing. Treating thyroid cancer with radiation may also cause a decrease in the number of white blood cells, which help protect the body against infection. If the blood counts are low, the doctor or nurse may suggest ways to avoid getting an infection, and the person may not be able to have more radiation therapy until blood counts improve.
Doctors will need to check the blood counts regularly and change the treatment schedule if necessary. Although the side effects of radiation treatment for thyroid cancer can be distressing, the doctor can usually treat or control them. It is important to note that in most cases, these side effects are not permanent.
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