A doctor may recommend radiation therapy for soft tissue sarcoma to kill cancer cells before surgery, after surgery, or in place of surgery.

Radiation therapy is an important part of a soft tissue sarcoma treatment plan. It uses high energy rays to destroy cancer cells.

Doctors may use this type of treatment:

  • before surgery to shrink the tumor and make it easier to remove
  • after surgery to kill any cancer cells that remain
  • in place of surgery when surgical removal isn’t a good option

Sometimes, healthcare professionals may also use radiation therapy to help relieve symptoms of soft tissue sarcoma that’s spread or come back.

This article takes a closer look at how doctors use radiation therapy for soft tissue sarcoma, how effective it is, and what the procedure’s like.

The goal of radiation therapy is to destroy cancer cells. When doctors use it as part of your treatment for soft tissue sarcoma, the exact goals depend on when during the course of your treatment you receive it.

You might have radiation therapy at a few different points, including:

  • Before surgery: Radiation therapy before tumor removal surgery is called neoadjuvant treatment. It can help shrink tumors so that they are easier to remove.
  • After surgery: Radiation therapy after surgery is called adjuvant treatment. It helps kill any remaining cancer cells and is very commonly part of soft tissue sarcoma treatment.
  • In place of surgery: Tumor removal surgery isn’t safe for everyone. Radiation therapy can be a substitute for surgery, killing cancer cells and stopping the tumor from spreading.
  • To control symptoms: Sometimes, when cancer spreads or comes back after initial treatment, radiation therapy can help relieve symptoms. Typically, this is part of a palliative care plan.

Sometimes, healthcare professionals give radiation therapy for soft tissue sarcoma in combination with another cancer treatment: chemotherapy. This is called chemoradiation. It can allow you to get two powerful treatments at once, but it can also cause more side effects.

Read more about chemoradiation here, including its potential side effects.

The exact effectiveness of radiation therapy as a treatment for soft tissue sarcoma depends on such factors as:

  • the timing of the treatment
  • your overall health
  • the stage and location of the soft tissue sarcoma
  • your response to treatment

For instance, radiation therapy after surgery to help kill any remaining cancer cells is associated with higher survival rates and better outcomes.

When doctors give radiation therapy for soft tissue sarcoma that’s spread or returned, however, it’s intended to treat the symptoms, not to cure the cancer.

The exact number of radiation therapy sessions you’ll need for soft tissue sarcoma depends on:

  • when you receive radiation therapy (before, after, or instead of surgery)
  • the type of radiation therapy you get
  • your doctor’s recommendations, which take into account the type and stage of your cancer, as well as your overall health

Often, when you have radiation therapy after surgery, the course will last for several weeks. It’s common to have radiation therapy daily for about a month to 6 weeks. Treatment duration at other times can vary.

Radiation treatments typically happen during outpatient sessions that take 10–30 minutes each.

During your treatment, you’ll lie on a table. A machine that delivers radiation energy will move around your body so that it can administer the radiation from several angles. It will concentrate on the area of your tumor. You might hear a buzzing sound as the machine moves.

You’ll be alone in the treatment room, but you’ll have an intercom device so that you can speak with medical staff if you need to. They can stop treatment right away if needed. However, radiation doesn’t hurt.

Most medical treatments carry some risk of side effects, including radiation therapy.

Potential side effects can vary depending on when you have radiation therapy and the location of your tumor. For example, radiation to the stomach is more likely to cause difficulties with digestion, while radiation to the neck or chest might cause problems with swallowing.

Potential side effects of radiation therapy for soft tissue sarcoma include:

Typically, most symptoms improve or resolve after radiation therapy sessions are complete. However, symptoms such as bone weakness or lung damage that cause difficulty breathing can sometimes be permanent.

It’s best to talk with your doctor about the side effects most likely to affect you.

Radiation therapy is an important part of the treatment for soft tissue sarcoma. You might have radiation therapy before surgery, after surgery, or in place of surgery. Sometimes, doctors suggest radiation therapy to relieve symptoms of soft tissue sarcoma that’s spread or returned.

Radiation therapy can cause side effects, including lung and bone damage, but most are mild and will resolve after your sessions end.