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Palliative Radiation Therapy

Using Radiation Therapy to Relieve Cancer Symptoms


Updated April 22, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Palliative radiation therapy is considered comfort care and is intended to improve quality of life. Palliative radiation isn't used to cure cancer, but rather to alleviate symptoms caused by localized tumors that can't be treated with other methods (such as surgery).

Palliative Radiation Therapy Relieves Symptoms

Palliative radiation can reduce the size of tumors that are causing distressing symptoms. Some common reasons for considering palliative radiation include:

  • Pain: Radiation is especially helpful in treating pain caused by tumors invading the bone. It can also relieve nerve pain caused by tumors pressing on nerves.

  • Spinal Cord Compression: Spinal cord compression is a serious and painful condition. It is caused by tumors pressing on the spine and spinal cord.

  • Super Vena Caval Obstruction: Obstruction of the super vena cava by a tumor causes swelling in the face, shortness of breath, and a feeling of fullness in the head.

  • Bleeding: Some tumors can cause troublesome bleeding. Hemoptysis, or coughing up blood, can be caused by tumors in the airway; rectal, vaginal, and urinary bleeding may also be troublesome enough to treat with radiation.

  • Obstructions: Tumors that are obstructing the airway or esophagus, making breathing or eating difficult, are also often treated with radiation.

Types of Palliative Radiation Therapy

There are three ways to deliver radiation therapy:

  1. External-Beam Radiation Therapy -- This type of radiation is delivered to the outside of the body by a special radiation machine.

  2. Internal Radiation Therapy -- Internal radiation is delivered by radioactive material placed inside the body near the tumor.

  3. Systemic Radiation Therapy -- Systemic radiation is delivered throughout the body via the blood stream. An example of this is radioactive iodine that is used to treat certain types of thyroid cancers.

Side Effects of Palliative Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy effectively kills tumor cells but unfortunately also affects healthy cells. When healthy cells are destroyed, side effects can occur. Some common side effects of radiation therapy include:

  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Radiation cystitis (irritation and pain in the bladder)
  • Skin burns, irritation, and infections
  • Damage and infections of the lining of the mouth
  • Fever

Most symptoms will resolve within weeks of the last radiation treatment. Expert palliative care will help address and manage any side effects of palliative radiation.


Lawrence TS, Ten Haken RK, Giaccia A. Principles of Radiation Oncology. In: DeVita VT Jr., Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, editors. Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 8th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2008.

Ferrell, BR and Coyle, N; Textbook of Palliative Nursing, Oxford University Press, 2006.

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