Treating cancers with radiotherapy

Radiation therapy, also known as Radiotherapy, is one of the most common cancer treatment.

06 Apr 2023
Treating cancers with radiotherapy

Radiation therapy uses radiation to treat cancer by killing and reducing the spread of the cancer cells. While radiation therapy may only be used for cancer treatments, it can also be administered with other treatments such as surgery or chemotherapy. The type of cancer treatment also depends on the location of cancer, stage of cancer and other health factors. 

Let's hear from Dr Francis Chin, Senior Consultant in Radiation Oncology, Palliative Medicine from Icon Cancer Centre where he answers some of your burning questions on radiation therapy treatment for cancer.

1. How does radiation therapy work?

Radiation therapy, also known as radiotherapy, uses small doses of highly-targeted radiation to safely treat and manage cancer. It does this by delivering radiation over an extended period of time, typically days and weeks, to destroy cancer cells (which are more sensitive to radiation) while preserving normal healthy cells.

2. How long is each session?

Radiation therapy treatment is typically delivered every day (Monday to Friday) across several weeks, which helps your healthy cells to recover while delivering enough radiation to target the cancer cells. The session generally lasts between five to 20 minutes and you generally will not need to stay in hospital following your radiation therapy treatment.

The duration of the treatment session is a guideline and the course of radiation therapy is unique for every individual, depending on the location and stage of the disease, type of cancer, age and general health.

3. Are there any side effects of radiation therapy?

There are some common short-term side effects that develop during radiation therapy treatment. These may include skin reactions such as redness, itchiness and irritation in the area that is being treated, which typically resolve four to six weeks after treatments. Your care team will show you how to care for your skin and manage any skin reactions.

Another common side effect from radiation therapy treatment is fatigue. You may feel tired or lack energy for daily activities during your treatment, which can worsen as you reach the end of your treatment. This is a common reaction to radiation therapy and each person is usually affected in varying degrees, which can also depend on whether you are also receiving other cancer treatments such as chemotherapy. Fatigue usually eases a few weeks after treatment finishes. Finding a balance between rest and activity will help you manage daily life.

If you have any concerns about the side effects, please discuss these with your radiation oncologist as they are the best person to provide more details.

4. What are the benefits of radiation therapy compared to other cancer treatments?

Depending on the type of cancer you have and your unique needs, radiation therapy may be the only cancer treatment that is required. One of the benefits of radiation therapy is that it is usually given as outpatient treatment, so patients can still continue with their daily activities and lead a normal life.

Radiation therapy also works hand-in-hand with other treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Radiation therapy can reduce the risk of cancer recurrence when delivered either before or after surgery for many types of cancer, such as breast cancer, uterine cancer, skin cancer and prostate cancer.

Other cancers such as head and neck cancer, bladder cancer, lung cancer and cervical cancer will typically have radiation therapy delivered as the main treatment to avoid the need to remove organs and/or avoid surgery.

Radiation therapy can also be used as palliative care for advanced cancers to effectively provide pain management.

5. I read that exposure to radiation can cause cancer and heart issues. How can radiation still treat cancer?

When radiation therapy is delivered to the chest area for cancers such as lung cancer, oesophageal cancer or breast cancer, there is a small risk that certain heart issues can develop due to radiation being delivered to healthy tissue surrounding the cancer. Heart conditions that may develop include:

  • Pericarditis – Inflammation of the tissue surrounding the heart
  • Premature coronary artery disease and atherosclerosis
  • Myocarditis – Inflammation of the heart muscle
  • Congestive heart failure – Loss of heart pumping ability
  • Heart valve disease
  • Heart rhythm changes – Arrhythmia
  • Cardiomyopathy – Enlarged heart

However, there are a number of techniques that are used to reduce damage to the heart and surrounding organs during radiation therapy such as Deep Inspiration Breath Hold (DIBH). The process involves holding a certain number of breaths for short bursts during treatment which allows the heart to move backwards into the chest while the breast is exposed to radiation.

Usually, your doctor will assess your personal health history before deciding on the best course of treatment for your cancer. Here are some of the factors that the doctor will look into:

  • Heart disease risk factors – Such as obesity, cigarette smoking, diabetes and family history
  • A personal history of heart disease

People who have been treated with radiation therapy for a previous cancer have a slightly higher risk of developing cancer again. The risk is different depending on where in the body you have been treated, the dose of radiation you received and your age when treated, with an average time of about 10 years between the radiation treatment and the diagnosis of a secondary cancer. If you are concerned about other cancers that may develop following radiation therapy treatment, please discuss this with your doctor.

The article is contributed by Dr Francis Chin, Senior Consultant in Radiation Oncology, Palliative Medicine from Icon Cancer Centre. 


Plan ahead to guard yourself against rising medical costs

Now you might be worried about the hefty cost of cancer treatments. The average cost of radiation therapy treatment in Singapore is approximately S$25,000 to S$30,0001 and it depends on the number of sessions you need. While all Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents are covered under MediShield Life, the public health insurance scheme, it may only cover a portion of the total cancer treatment costs, within specified claim limits.

Have peace of mind knowing that our GREAT SupremeHealth and GREAT TotalCare plans come with comprehensive outpatient cancer drug treatment benefits to defray the cost of cancer drugs and treatments not covered under MediShield Life. Terms and conditions apply. 

Contact your Great Eastern Financial Representative to find out more or request for us to call you back today.

GREAT SupremeHealth + GREAT TotalCare

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This advertisement has not been reviewed by the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

GREAT TotalCare is not a MediSave-approved Integrated Shield plan and premiums are not payable using MediSave. GREAT TotalCare is designed to complement the benefits offered under GREAT SupremeHealth.

The information presented is for general information only and does not have regard to the specific investment objectives, financial situation or particular needs of any particular person.

This is only product information provided by us. You may wish to seek advice from a qualified adviser before buying the product. If you choose not to seek advice from a qualified adviser, you should consider whether the product is suitable for you. Buying health insurance products that are not suitable for you may impact your ability to finance your future healthcare needs.

If you decide that the policy is not suitable after purchasing the policy, you may terminate the policy in accordance with the free-look provision, if any, and the insurer may recover from you any expense incurred by the insurer in underwriting the policy.

These policies are protected under the Policy Owners’ Protection Scheme which is administered by the Singapore Deposit Insurance Corporation (SDIC). Coverage for your policy is automatic and no further action is required from you. For more information on the types of benefits that are covered under the scheme as well as the limits of coverage, where applicable, please contact us or visit the Life Insurance Association (LIA) or SDIC websites ( or

Information correct as at 6 April 2023.

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