Survey finds radiation therapy isn't as scary as it seems

por Lauren Dubinsky, Senior Reporter | September 28, 2017
Rad Oncology Radiation Therapy Women's Health
Patients unaware of major
technological advances
“The word radiation itself sounds frightening, and is associated with so many negative news stories,” Dr. Narek Shaverdian, radiation oncology resident at UCLA, told HCB News.

But new research presented on Monday at the American Society for Radiation Oncology annual meeting revealed that breast cancer patients’ actual radiation therapy experience was less scary than expected.

Shaverdian and his team sent surveys to all patients who received treatment for breast cancer at a UCLA-affiliated cancer clinic between 2012 and 2016. The eligible patients were those who had six or more months of follow-up and did not experience tumor recurrence.

Among the 327 eligible respondents, 18 percent had stage 0 breast cancer, 39 percent stage I, 34 percent stage II and nine percent stage III. Eighty-two percent underwent breast conserving surgery, 13 percent axillary dissection, 37 percent chemotherapy and 70 percent endocrine therapy.

They completed the survey in a median 31 months after finishing radiation therapy. The questions evaluated their fears and beliefs about breast cancer treatment and its side effects, as well as how the actual experience went.

“Patients may have an outdated view of radiation therapy that hasn't kept up with all the major advances made over the last 20 years,” said Shaverdian. “But in fact, there have been significant advances in how radiation therapy for breast cancer is delivered, allowing us to spare critical organs, create an individual radiation plan for each patient and also deliver radiation in more convenient schedules.”

Shaverdian and his team found that 90 percent of the respondents found the actual experience to be less scary than anticipated. Short-term and long-term side effects were either better than expected or as expected for 83 percent and 84 percent of the respondents, respectively.

More than two-thirds reported that they had little to no prior knowledge of radiation therapy at the time of their diagnosis, but almost half also shared that they previously read or heard stories about serious side effects that resulted from radiation therapy.

Ninety-four percent were initially fearful of receiving radiation therapy with the most common concerns being damage to internal organs, skin burns and becoming radioactive. But only five percent found that the negative stories they read or heard were true in their situation.

Shaverdian hopes that the data from these findings can be used to counsel future patients and their physicians on the realities of the modern breast radiation therapy experience.

“We hope that patients aren't put off by their fears of radiation therapy, but rather take the time to learn about their treatment options and breast conservation therapy,” he said. “We do hope that patients avoid choosing more aggressive surgeries with higher risks of complications, without having had a chance to make an informed treatment decision.”

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