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For people with rectal cancer, radiation therapy may be used to treat the disease -- either on its own or in conjunction with surgery, chemotherapy, or both. Radiation therapy involves the use of high-energy x-rays (or other types of radiation) to kill cancer cells. There are two types of rectal cancer radiation therapy: external and internal. Side effects of radiation therapy may include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and urinary discomfort.

Rectal Cancer Radiation Therapy: An Overview

Radiation therapy is a rectal cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells. There are two types of radiation therapy for rectal cancer treatment:
  • External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer.


  • Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.


The way the radiation therapy is administered depends on the stage of the rectal cancer being treated.

Radiation therapy may be used alone, with surgery, with chemotherapy, or with surgery and chemotherapy. Doctors may use radiation to destroy cancer cells that remain in the area after surgery and to relieve pain and other problems caused by the cancer. Radiation therapy is local therapy, which means that it only affects cancer cells in the treated area. Patients who receive rectal cancer radiation therapy need to go to the hospital or clinic for treatment.

Side Effects of Rectal Cancer Radiation Therapy

The side effects of rectal cancer radiation therapy will depend on the treatment dose and the part of the body that is being treated. Although patients may become very tired during radiation therapy, doctors usually advise patients to try to stay as active as they can.
Side effects of radiation therapy may include the following:
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Urinary discomfort
  • A decrease in the number of healthy white blood cells.
Although the side effects of rectal cancer radiation therapy can be distressing, doctors can usually treat or control them. Side effects of radiation therapy usually go away when treatment is over.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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