Chemotherapy vs. Radiation

Instructor: Alyssa Campbell

Alyssa is an active RN and teaches Nursing and Leadership university courses. She also has a Doctorate in Nursing Practice and a Master's in Business Administration.

Both chemotherapy and radiation can be effective methods of cancer treatment. Read further to learn more about what makes these two options different from each other.

Chemotherapy v. Radiation: What is the Best Option?

Chemotherapy and radiation are two forms of cancer treatment. They are common treatment options that require minimal, if any, surgery or invasive procedures.

While they both work towards the same goal: these two methods of treatment are very different from each other. They differ in:

  • Application (what kind of cancers they treat)
  • How they affect the body as a whole
  • Suitability for the patient

Because both options vary in terms of pros and cons, it is best to consider what treatment method makes the most sense on an individual basis.


Doug is a patient recently diagnosed with colorectal cancer. His diagnostic imaging results include multiple small malignant (cancerous) tumors along the intestinal and rectal tract. Doug was anxious and frightened at the thought of having to start chemotherapy because he rarely ever took medication in his life- let alone something as toxic as chemotherapy. Doug felt better about chemotherapy after his doctor explained why it was a better option over radiation for his specific cancer.

First, Doug learned that chemotherapy would be more of a systemic treatment, meaning that it wouldn't be targeted at one small precise area. Unfortunately, this means that cancer cells are not specifically targeted and the treatment can damage surrounding, noncancerous cells. Given that Doug had multiple tumors of the same kind, chemotherapy might be better suited to treat more than one tumor at a time. Next, he considered some of the most common potential side effects.

  • Fatigue, or feeling especially tired
  • Nausea
  • Hair loss
  • Infertility
  • Decreased immunity

Since Doug was retired, already balding, and spent much of his time away from crowds to avoid getting sick, he felt he might be able to manage with some of the above side effects.

Doug was also relieved that while some people require intravenous chemotherapy treatments, requiring port (type of venous access device frequently used in the provision of chemotherapy) placement, it was likely that at this time he would only be required to take his chemotherapy orally, in the form of a pill. Lastly, he was very pleased to hear that he wouldn't have to undergo a minor outpatient surgical procedure to place the port.


When Doug initially found out about his colorectal cancer, he assumed he would undergo cancer treatment similar to his co-worker, John, who had a single mass (area of tumor growth) on his large intestine. John underwent radiation, and has been in remission for a few years.

Doug had learned that due to John's single tumor and a history of anemia (low blood count usually resulting in fatigue), he had been a better candidate for radiation. John explained that unlike chemotherapy, radiation used different types of electrically charged particles to target cancerous tumors. This meant that the radiation treatments specifically targeted an area of cancer cells, leaving the surrounding cells with little to no damage.

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