Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be used together or individually in cancer treatment. Chemotherapy is medication and radiation therapy uses high dose energy. Both can be highly effective.

A cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming and life-changing. However, there are many treatment options that work to fight off cancer cells and prevent them from spreading.

Chemotherapy and radiation are among the most effective treatments for most types of cancer. Although they have the same goals, there are key differences between the two types of therapy.

In this article, we’ll help explain how these treatments work, how they differ from each other, and what types of side effects they can have.

The major difference between chemo and radiation is the way they’re delivered.

Chemotherapy is a medication given to treat cancer that’s designed to kill cancer cells. It’s usually taken by mouth or given through an infusion into a vein or medication port.

There are many different types of chemotherapy drugs. Your doctor can prescribe the type that’s most effective at treating your specific type of cancer.

Chemotherapy can have many side effects, depending on the type that you’re getting.

Radiation therapy involves giving high doses of radiation beams directly into a tumor. The radiation beams change the DNA makeup of the tumor, causing it to shrink or die.

This type of cancer treatment has fewer side effects than chemotherapy since it only targets one area of the body.

How chemotherapy works

Chemotherapy medications are designed to destroy cells in the body that divide rapidly — specifically, cancer cells.

However, there are cells in other parts of your body that also divide rapidly but aren’t cancer cells. Examples include the cells in your:

  • hair follicles
  • nails
  • digestive tract
  • mouth
  • bone marrow

Chemotherapy can unintentionally target and destroy these cells, too. This can cause a number of different side effects.

Your oncologist (cancer doctor) will be able to determine what kind of chemotherapy medications will be most effective at treating the type of cancer you have.

Chemotherapy delivery

When you get chemotherapy, it can be given in a couple of different forms:

Chemo is often given in “cycles,” which means that it’s given at specific time intervals — usually every few weeks — to target the cancer cells at a certain point in their life cycle.

Side effects of chemotherapy

You may experience side effects with chemotherapy. The kind of side effects you have will depend on the type of chemotherapy you’re getting and any other health conditions you may already have.

Some side effects of chemotherapy include:

It’s important to remember that different chemo medications cause different side effects, and everyone reacts to chemo differently.

How radiation works

With radiation therapy, beams of radiation are focused on a specific area in your body. The radiation changes the DNA makeup of the tumor, causing the cells to die instead of multiplying and possibly spreading.

Radiation may be used as the primary method of treating and destroying a tumor, but it can also be used:

  • to shrink a tumor before removing it with surgery
  • to kill any remaining cancer cells after a surgery
  • as part of a combined treatment approach with chemotherapy
  • when you have a medical condition that may prevent you from getting chemotherapy

Radiation delivery

There are three types of radiation therapy used to treat cancer:

  • External beam radiation. This method uses beams of radiation from a machine that focuses directly on the site of your tumor.
  • Internal radiation. Also called brachytherapy, this method uses radiation (either liquid or solid) that’s placed inside your body near where the tumor is.
  • Systemic radiation. This method involves radiation in pill or liquid form that’s either taken by mouth or injected into a vein.

The type of radiation you receive will depend on the type of cancer you have, as well as what your oncologist thinks will be most effective.

Side effects of radiation therapy

Since radiation therapy is focused on one area of your body, you may experience fewer side effects than with chemotherapy. However, it may still affect healthy cells in your body.

Side effects of radiation may include:

Sometimes, one of these treatments can be more effective than the other in treating a particular type of cancer. Other times, chemo and radiation can actually complement each other and be given together.

When you meet with your cancer care team, your oncologist will give you the options that will be most effective in treating your type of cancer.

Together with your cancer care team, you can decide on the treatment option that’s right for you.

Chemo and radiation are sometimes used together to treat certain types of cancers. This is called concurrent therapy. This may be recommended if your cancer:

  • cannot be removed with surgery
  • is likely to spread to other areas of your body
  • isn’t responding to one particular type of treatment

With both chemotherapy and radiation, there’s a high likelihood of experiencing some side effects. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about them.

Here are some tips to cope with the side effects of cancer treatments:

  • Ask your doctor about medications you can take to treat nausea and vomiting.
  • Place an alcohol pad on the bridge of your nose if you’re experiencing nausea.
  • Eat popsicles to ease the pain from mouth sores.
  • Try drinking ginger ale or ginger tea to ease nausea.
  • Eat ice chips to stay hydrated.
  • Divide up your meals, so they’re smaller and easier to eat. Focus on eating foods that are high in nutrients and protein.
  • Wash your hands frequently to avoid getting an infection.
  • Try acupuncture. According to clinical trials, this alternative therapy may help ease nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.

Always talk to your healthcare team about any side effects you may have. They’ll be able to give you specific advice and instructions on what you can do to help relieve your symptoms.

Chemotherapy and radiation are two of the most common types of cancer treatments. Whether you receive chemo or radiation will depend on the type and location of your cancer, as well as your overall health status.

The major difference between chemo and radiation is the way they’re delivered.

Chemotherapy is delivered through an infusion into a vein or medication port, or it can be taken orally. With radiation therapy, beams of radiation are focused on a specific area in your body.

The goal of both types of treatment is to destroy the cancer cells while limiting the effects on the rest of your body.