Myths, misconceptions regarding radiation therapy

World cancer day is an international day marked on 4 February founded by the Union for International Cancer Control to support the goals of the world cancer declaration. 

This day saves lives by raising awareness and educating the population about cancer, it also serves to pressure governments and individuals to take action in order to prevent, treat and control cancer.

The three year world cancer day campaign 2019-2021 ‘I am and I Will’ explores how together or individually everyone can help to reduce the burden of cancer.

This campaign explores actions that ‘I am and I Will’ do to save lives, achieve greater equity in cancer care and make fighting cancer a priority at the highest political levels.

We are radiation therapists and we will fight cancer.

A radiation therapist is one of the allied health professions often forgotten by the public and media in a world where the national health system seems to consist of only doctors and nurses.

With the rising cancer burden globally, it’s high time the radiation therapy profession be put out in the limelight because they are very critical in the management of cancer, which is now killing more people in Zimbabwe than TB, HIV and malaria combined. 

When you mention the word “therapy radiographer” to someone in worst case scenarios the next question you are mostly likely to be asked is ndimi munogadzira maradio here? (Are you the ones who repair radios?). As bad as that may sound, we have decided to take you readers on what a  radiation therapist  is and dispel any misconceptions that you may have regarding cancer treatment using radiation therapy .

Radiation therapists play a pivotal role in cancer treatment in Zimbabwe. They work in direct contact with radiation oncologists, medical physicists, dosimetrists and oncology nurses to treat patients with cancer. 

Cancer is a deadly disease that requires a competent professional team to achieve cure or symptom relief. Using a range of technical equipment, radiation therapists deliver accurate doses of radiation to the tumour to destroy the diseased tissue, while minimizing the amount of radiation to surrounding healthy tissue. 

Being the only healthcare professionals qualified to plan and deliver radiotherapy in Zimbabwe; they have regular contact with patients before, during and after their treatment and will play a vital role in helping them cope with the daily physical and psychological demands of having radiotherapy. 

Mon 4 February 2019 is the International World Cancer day and as radiation therapists we reflect on how we have been working hard over the years to ensure reliable, safe and consistent services are rendered at our institutions. However, it is sad that with such well-equipped state of the art radiation therapy facilities in the country, most of the cancer patients may not show up for treatment or come later on when alternative treatments have failed. 

When it comes to something as important as radiation therapy in cancer treatment, getting to the bottom of some of the myths could help people to make informed decisions in their battle against cancer and come to the radiation therapist for treatment on time!

As radiation therapists with in-depth knowledge and expertise in the field of radiation therapy and oncology, we are here to dispel any myths and misconceptions you may have regarding radiation therapy! 

The fact that radiation therapy is commonly called kupisa in our vernacular language has made many assume that the treatment results in a burning sensation and must be very painful, receiving radiation is not painful; the delivery process cannot be felt and is completely painless. However after a few weeks there can be skin soreness and dryness over the treated area but the side effects are temporary. I guarantee you that it is a painless procedure.

Hair loss on the head is typically only a risk factor if you are receiving radiation therapy to the brain. In fact hair loss on the head is a more common side effect of chemotherapy, not radiation therapy. There are certain chemotherapy drugs that make hair fall so prior treatment patients are advised to shave their heads bald. 

The risk of a second cancer from radiation treatments is very low and a very late potential side effect of radiation that can occur later, for adults the risk of developing a radiation induced cancer is only about 1 in 150 to 1 in 200.  This second cancer risk is most often outweighed by the benefit of treating the active known cancer at both centres each patient works with his or her doctor to understand any late side effects of radiation therapy and all the risks versus benefit to make an informed decision about your course of cancer care.

The vast majority of radiotherapy both external and internal does not involve leaving any radioactive materials in the body, so the patient will not be radioactive after treatment and it is perfectly safe to be around loved ones.

It is a fact that about 80 percent of our cancer patients present themselves at the radiotherapy institutions when the cancer is at an advanced stage. Radiotherapy is very frequently given late in the course of cancer to palliate symptoms ,often after the cancer has turned resistant to chemotherapy and has spread widely or when the patient is too frail to receive any other therapy, the terminal cancer will take its natural course no matter what is done, in such cases relatives may form a misunderstanding that radiotherapy given soon before death caused the tumour to progress and the patient to die, this is untrue, a good prognosis is the result of treating cancer at earlier stages, we encourage early detection and treatment to save lives! (Madzudzo and Masiku are radiation therapist by profession) 

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