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The Difference Between Chemotherapy & Radiation Therapy

Southeast Radiation Oncology Center - Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Difference Between Chemotherapy & Radiation Therapy

The most common types of treatment used to battle cancer are radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Each treatment is designed to target and kill cancer cells in the body, but both utilize a different set of processes and tools to help treat and cure a patient. Even the overall effect on the patient’s body is different between these two methods. Below you can find more information about each of these cancer treatment methods and how they differ from each other.



Often referred to in short as “Chemo”, chemotherapy is a treatment method that can be used to treat and cure a wide range of cancers. With chemotherapy, the weapons of choice in the battle against cancer are special drugs that target and kill cells in the body that divide rapidly, which is a core characteristic of cancer cells. Typically, a combination of drugs will be used to improve the effectiveness of the treatment, and the type of drugs that are used can vary depending on the stage and type of cancer, as well as the patient’s overall health.

One of the benefits to chemotherapy is that the drugs work throughout the entire body, making them more effective at preventing cancer from spreading, or killing cancer cells that have already spread to other parts of the body. However, the downside is that the drugs will also kill other cells that have the ability to divide rapidly, which include the ones in your hair follicles and digestive system. This is why you often see patients who are going through chemotherapy lose their hair or have some digestive issues. The good news is that those cells will regenerate once treatment has been completed, while the cancer cells will not.

The chemotherapy drugs can be delivered as either oral medication or through an intravenous (IV) injection. This allows treatment to be a bit more versatile, since patients can receive chemotherapy at the hospital, at their doctor’s office, or at home.


Radiation Cancer Therapy (Radiotherapy)

With radiation therapy, a radiation oncologist delivers targeted doses of radiation to the area of the patient’s body affected by cancer. When cancer cells come into contact with radiation, the DNA in the cells is damaged, which prevents the cells from dividing or spreading, and eventually kills them off. In comparison to chemotherapy, which uses medication to treat the whole body, radiation therapy targets a specific area of the body, reducing the amount of healthy tissue affected by the treatment. While radiation therapy still affects a small amount of healthy tissue, the healthy cells have the ability to repair themselves from the damage over the course of a short recovery period.

Radiation therapy is delivered at a radiation oncology center, with treatments broken up between various sessions. The dosage level and length of treatment will be determined by the radiation oncologist, depending on the patient’s type and stage of cancer, and their overall health. During treatment, the patient may have to wear a protective mask or other equipment that will block radiation from hitting other parts of the body other than the designated treatment area.

There are different types of radiation therapy, making treatment more flexible when dealing with different types and stages of cancer. Each treatment has its own set of strengths, which can sometimes make treatment more effective for a certain patient. The types of radiation therapy include:


  • External Beam Radiation - Using an external machine, targeted beams of radiation are directed at the tumor to kill cancer cells. A patient receives exposure to the beam during a short treatment session over the course of a few days or a week.
  • Stereotactic Radiosurgery - Uses an advanced mapping system to track the exact location of a tumor, allowing for the delivery of radiation with pinpoint accuracy. This method is mostly used to treat small tumors that cannot be treated using surgery or traditional radiation therapy.
  • Brachytherapy - Via a minor surgical procedure, small tubes are inserted into the body and placed next to the tumor. A small amount of radioactive material is placed into the tube, delivering targeted radiation more directly to the tumor. Once treatment is completed, the tubes are removed and the radioactive material fades from from the body. Brachytherapy can be either Temporary or High Dose Rate (HDR).


Which Is Better: Radiation Therapy Or Chemotherapy?

The short answer is: it depends. Both radiation therapy and chemotherapy effectively kill cancer cells, but every patient is different, meaning that their body can respond differently to treatment. The patient’s physicians will determine what treatment is most beneficial for the patient and will produce the most favorable results. In some cases, it’s possible for radiation therapy and chemotherapy to be used together for more comprehensive treatment.


Contact Your Local Cancer Treatment Center In Juneau, AK!

If you have any questions about chemotherapy, radiation therapy, their differences, or which one is best for you, just contact us and we’ll be more than happy to help you get the information you need. We are your local cancer treatment experts and information resource, so we look forward to helping you gain a better understanding of the treatment methods you have available to you in the battle against cancer.


At Southeast Radiation Oncology Center, we know that cancer patients are best served by being treated in close proximity to a support network of family and friends. We offer patients in Southeast Alaska the ability to receive state-of-the-art radiation therapy without the burden of traveling great distances away from home.The information presented on this website is provided to allow our patients to gain more knowledge about our center, our staff, and our services.