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Radiation Therapy for Malignant Mesothelioma

Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays or particles to kill cancer cells. Mesotheliomas tend to be hard to treat with radiation therapy. They don’t usually grow as single, distinct tumors, so it can be hard to aim radiation at them while avoiding nearby normal tissues. Still, newer techniques give better control of the radiation beams and may make this form of treatment more useful for some people.

Radiation therapy can be used in different ways to treat mesothelioma:

  • It can be used after surgery to try to kill any small areas of cancer that couldn’t be seen and removed during surgery. This is called adjuvant radiation therapy.
  • It can be used as a palliative procedure to ease symptoms of mesothelioma such as shortness of breath, pain, bleeding, or trouble swallowing.

Types of radiation therapy

External beam radiation therapy (EBRT)

This is the main type of radiation therapy used for mesothelioma. It uses x-rays from a machine outside the body to kill cancer cells.

With newer techniques, for example, intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), doctors can treat mesotheliomas more accurately while reducing the radiation damage to nearby healthy tissues. This might offer a better chance of radiation working, while limiting side effects.


For this type of radiation therapy, a radiation source is put inside the body, in or near the cancer. Brachytherapy is seldom used for mesothelioma unless it's part of a clinical trial.

Possible side effects

Side effects of external radiation therapy include fatigue, sunburn-like skin problems, and hair loss where the radiation enters the body. These usually go away once treatment is finished. Chest radiation therapy can damage the lungs over time and lead to trouble breathing and shortness of breath. Abdominal radiation therapy may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite.

If radiation therapy is used together with chemotherapy, the side effects tend to be worse.

If you're having any side effects from radiation, talk with your treatment team. There are often ways to help control these symptoms.

More information about radiation therapy

To learn more about how radiation is used to treat cancer, see Radiation Therapy.

To learn about some of the side effects listed here and how to manage them, see Managing Cancer-related Side Effects.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

American Society of Clinical Oncology. Mesothelioma: Treatment Options. 07/2017. Accessed at on November 2, 2018.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network, Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines®), Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma, Version 2.2018 -- February 26, 2018. Accessed at on November 2, 2018.

Last Revised: November 16, 2018

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