Choosing Wisely

Radiation Therapy for Cancer

Less may be better

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If you have cancer, you and your doctor want to do all you can to treat it. It might seem like more treatment is better. However, that’s not always true, especially if the cancer is advanced. At that point, improving your quality of life may be your first goal.

It’s important to get the right treatment for your cancer, in the right amount. Everyone responds differently to treatment. The advice below is from the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO). Use it to help you talk with your doctor about your treatment options.

Radiation therapy to ease pain from cancer in your bones:

If cancer spreads, it often goes into the bones. This can cause a lot of pain. Radiation therapy can help ease the pain. Research shows that 10 treatments or fewer are usually enough. In fact, in many cases, a single treatment can bring relief and improve your quality of life.

Proton beam therapy for prostate cancer: 

Proton beam therapy is an advanced type of radiation therapy. It attacks tumors directly and can better spare the healthy tissue nearby. It is safe and effective for many kinds of cancer. However, there’s not enough evidence yet that it’s more effective in treating prostate cancer, compared to other forms of radiation that are less costly and more widely available.

The best way to help researchers find out if proton beam therapy is better for prostate cancer patients is to join a clinical trial. (See Advice column.)

Radiation therapy after surgery for early-stage lung cancer:

Most people who have surgery to treat lung cancer have a type called non-small-cell lung cancer.

If your doctor was able to remove all of the tumor, there’s little benefit to also having radiation therapy. Radiation therapy can cause side effects such as coughing, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, and fatigue, as well as other risks.

If your doctor could not remove all of the tumor with surgery, adding radiation therapy may be a good option.

Whole brain radiation therapy after stereotactic radiosurgery for cancer in the brain:

These are different kinds of radiation therapy for cancer that spreads to the brain:

  • Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) can treat individual tumors and have less effect on other brain tissue nearby.
  • Whole brain radiation therapy (WBRT) delivers radiation to the entire brain.

When cancer spreads to the brain, doctors often use SRS to treat small tumors.

In the past, people almost always had WBRT after SRS. However, recent studies have shown that WBRT may cause negative side effects, including fatigue and confusion. It also may not help you live longer.

Currently, doctors recommend regular follow-up, and they use SRS or WBRT later if you have new tumors. In general, this is the recommended approach if:

  • Your doctor feels that all of the tumors in the brain can be safely treated.
  • You’re still feeling well enough to do most daily activities.


Advice from Consumer Reports

This report is for you to use when talking with your healthcare provider. It is not a substitute for medical advice and treatment. Use of this report is at your own risk.

© 2015 Consumer Reports. Developed in cooperation with the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO). To learn more about the sources used in this report and the terms and conditions of use, please visit