How Can Radiotherapy Manage Cancer Pain?

patient lying on sofa

The vast majority of people who have booked appointments at a radiotherapy centre have done so in order to take advantage of a highly targeted, specialist treatment that helps to remove lesions and tumours before they can cause harm through growing and spreading.

The Gamma Knife radiosurgery, for example, is a highly effective targeted radiotherapy treatment that uses a range of focused beams of radiation to destroy tumours with little damage to surrounding tissue.

However, besides treatment, radiotherapy has a number of other purposes, one of which is less about a curative treatment and more focused on palliative care and relieving the pain that can come from more advanced stages of cancer.

Whilst primarily used for helping relieve the pain associated with bone cancer, it can be used to help with the management of other types of pain.


How Cancer Causes Pain

To understand how radiotherapy helps with pain relief, it is important to know the reasons why cancer can (but does not always) cause people pain.

When lesions, growths and tumours become malignant and grow, they can start to press against other parts of the body, such as nerves, organ tissue and bones, which can cause pain that is made worse by the cells being weakened and destroyed by the tumours themselves.

With bone cancer, this weakening can lead to fractures and breaks, which can cause agonising pain that compounds the pain caused by cancer in the first place, which can reach the point of being unbearable at more advanced stages.

Radiotherapy works to reduce this pain in similar ways to how it can help reduce or remove cancer at less advanced stages.

It reduces the size of certain cancer tumours, which stops them from pressing against nerves and other parts of the body, and can in some cases make these tumours more viably treated.

For tumours that press on the spinal cord or have started to obstruct the airway, these can provide significant relief or even become a vital part of treatment.

It can also be used if a cancer is ulcerating and thus causing bleeding.

However, it cannot always be used and any use of targeted radiotherapy in the process of pain relief must be mindful that most types of radiotherapy and radiosurgery do inevitably have side effects and this will mean that palliative radiotherapy treatments will only be approved if they cause less pain than they relieve.

This is also managed by using lower doses in palliative radiotherapy than would be used in radiosurgery since the purpose is to reduce the side of the tumour rather than completely excise it.

It can also be used in combination with other medications and treatments to help relieve pain as well, depending on the type of cancer and how it reacts to different treatments.

Palliative treatment is not intended to cure the cancer, but it is commonly effective at reducing symptoms and allowing not only for a better quality of life but also a longer life for people in the advanced stages of cancer.