The risk of cancer returning after radiation therapy

Ben Brewer is the name of a brave young man featured on 9 News for his 11-year battle with cancer. (1) The report states that young Ben was diagnosed with blastoma at the age of two. He had undergone various treatments including chemotherapy and as of last year, liquid radiation. He has relapsed three times prior to the radiation therapy.

Ben, his family, and his medical team truly believed they had seen the last of the blastoma after the radiation treatment. He was featured on 9 News as the ‘radioactive boy” due to his bravery with the complex and often, isolating treatment.

Ben was cancer free from 2014 until September 2015, when scans confirmed the presence of five new spots in various parts of his body. (2) As he and his family discuss options with the doctors at Children’s Hospital Colorado, we can’t help but wonder why cancer sometimes comes back after radiation therapy, as stringent as the treatment is.

How Liquid Radiation Works

Radiation treatment, also known as radiotherapy, is a powerful therapy used to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. In the case of young Ben, the radiation was injected into his body and he became radioactive immediately. Radiation can be highly dangerous to those with a healthy immune system, so Ben was left alone for four days in a lead-lined room. His parents were only allowed to visit for a short time period and had to wear radiation gear prior to entering the room. (1)

Unlike radiation beams that can only target one area, liquid radiation hits many spots at once where tumors may be hidden. This allows for direct access to the cancer. The body will dispose of the radiation as a by-product in urine. Precautions must be made at the hospital during treatment as to not expose patients or staff to the radiation. (1)

Side Effects to Expect from Liquid Radiation

If you are considering liquid radiation as the treatment for your cancer, you will be happy to learn it actually consists of fewer side effects than other treatments. Here are a few of the side effects you can expect:

  • Fatigue (by far, the biggest side effect)
  • Nausea (slight)
  • Infection (low risk)
  • Platelets dropping to a very low level will require blood transfusions. Not only does the liquid radiation kill cancer cells, but it can also wipe out a great deal of red and white blood cells. In Ben Brewer’s case, he was given an injection consisting of his own stem cells to boost immunity, followed by several blood transfusions after the radiation therapy in 2014. (1)

Sometimes They Come Back

The question remains – if liquid radiation is such a promising treatment for cancers like blastoma, then why do the cancers come back?

This question may be rhetorical at best; however there are some theories as to how cancer reemerges. Cancer Research Center in the UK offers a few suggestions: (4)

  • The original treatment failed to get all of the cancer cells
  • The cancer cells have spread to various parts of the body
  • Not all of the cancer cells were destroyed by the radiation

Cancer Research UK states this about the workings of radiation treatment, “Radiotherapy makes small breaks in the DNA inside cells. These breaks stop cancer cells from growing and dividing, and often make them die. Normal cells close to the cancer can also be damaged by radiation but most of them recover and go back to working normally. If radiotherapy doesn’t kill all of the cancer cells they will regrow at some point in the future.” (3)

Consult your oncologist to see if liquid radiation is the right treatment for your diagnosis.

(1)9 News – No longer active
(2)9 News – No longer active
(3)Cancer Research UK