Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to destroy cancerous cells. Doctors may recommend a combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy to treat esophageal cancer.

Radiation therapy uses radiation similar to X-rays but with a higher intensity. It can help shrink the size of cancer by killing the cancerous cells.

However, the radiation may also damage a person’s healthy cells, and this can cause some side effects.

This article discusses the purpose of radiation for esophageal cancer, the types of radiation doctors use to treat cancer, how they work, and their potential side effects.

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Radiation therapy helps to treat esophageal cancer. This treatment aims to attack cancerous cells and destroy them.

Doctors may also recommend undergoing chemotherapy alongside radiation therapy because the combination of these two types of treatment can be more effective in treating certain types of esophageal cancer.

Treatment with joint radiation therapy and chemotherapy is also known as chemoradiation.

Learn about the difference between chemotherapy and radiation therapy here.

There are two main types of radiation therapy: external-beam radiation therapy (EBRT) and internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy).

External-beam radiation therapy

This is the type of radiation that doctors often use to treat esophageal cancer. During this type of therapy, a machine focuses radiation on the part of the body that needs cancer treatment.

The procedure is similar to an X-ray, but the radiation has a higher intensity. The length and frequency of the treatment can vary depending on the extent and type of cancer.

Internal radiation therapy

During this procedure, a doctor will pass an endoscope down the person’s throat to reach the esophagus and place a radioactive agent next to the cancerous cells that require treatment. They will then remove the radioactive source after a short period of time.

Doctors do not use this procedure very often as it is not suitable for treating large areas of the body. However, it may be beneficial in relieving esophageal cancer symptoms, such as difficulties swallowing.

Learn more about the types of radiation therapy here.

Radiation therapy for esophageal cancer concentrates a beam of high-intensity radiation on the area that requires cancer treatment.

The radiation eliminates the cancerous cells in the area where the treatment is received while reducing as much harm to healthy cells as possible.

However, the radiation may also cause some damage to the healthy cells in the body. This can lead to a person experiencing some side effects of radiation therapy.

Doctors use radiation therapy, often alongside chemotherapy, to treat most stages of esophageal cancer.

People with esophageal cancer often receive radiation therapy when they cannot undergo surgery or if a doctor cannot surgically remove the cancer.

Radiation therapy is also an option for treating certain symptoms of advanced esophageal cancer, such as difficulty swallowing, pain, or bleeding.

Radiation therapy typically consists of daily treatments that usually last about 10–15 minutes each, although this may vary. The treatment normally takes place in a radiotherapy department.

The radiotherapy team will inform the person about how many treatments they will have to undergo. A course of radiation therapy may last for a number of weeks.

A doctor will explain how long the treatment will take before it starts. Receiving external-beam radiation therapy is not painful, but internal beam radiation may cause some pain afterward when swallowing.

Radiation therapy does not make a person radioactive or harmful to other people.

After undergoing radiation therapy, a person may experience some side effects, such as nausea and irritation on the skin near the treatment area. It is important that they inform their doctor of any side effects that occur.

Before starting the procedure, the doctor may require the person’s permission to make marks on their skin to help guide the radiation treatment. This may cause some discomfort, but it will help the radiotherapy team to make sure they direct the radiation more accurately.

In some cases, people may also need the installation of a feeding tube to guarantee access to water and nutrients. This is because radiation therapy can cause a sore throat that makes swallowing more challenging. People can discuss this with their doctor before starting the treatment.

After the treatment, doctors may recommend some changes in the person’s lifestyle and nutrition habits. Avoiding drinking alcohol and quitting smoking can help reduce the risk of cancer coming back.

A person may also need to have regular checkups with their doctor to look for any signs of cancer. People typically need to attend follow-up visits every 3–6 months in the first 2 years after they have completed the treatment and every 6–12 months from the third year onwards.

The side effects of radiation therapy for esophageal cancer include:

A person experiencing side effects after radiation therapy should inform their doctor so that they can receive any care or treatments necessary.

Learn more about the possible side effects of radiation therapy here.

Here are some common questions about radiation therapy for esophageal cancer.

How long is radiation treatment for esophageal cancer?

A single radiation therapy treatment typically lasts 10–15 minutes. A course of radiation therapy can last a number of weeks. The duration of the entire treatment plan may vary depending on a person’s health. Their doctor will be able to inform them how long the treatment should last.

How long does it take the esophagus to heal after radiation?

The esophagus typically takes 2–4 weeks to heal after radiation.

Can radiation and chemo cure esophageal cancer?

Chemoradiation therapy can help cure esophageal cancer. This is a treatment that combines both chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Doctors often use radiation therapy to treat esophageal cancer. It can help to destroy cancerous cells and shrink the size of the cancer.

People may receive radiation therapy alongside chemotherapy treatment. This type of cancer treatment is also known as chemoradiation. It may be more effective in treating cancer than radiation therapy alone.

Radiation therapy can cause some side effects as it may also damage healthy cells. Side effects include nausea, difficulty swallowing, tiredness, and skin irritation.

Treatment can last for a number of weeks. However, this may vary from person to person depending on the extent and stage of esophageal cancer. Any person receiving radiation therapy should ask their doctor how long the treatment will take and what they can expect afterward.