Nuclear Radiation vs Medical Radiation

Posted on October 3, 2023 in Radiation Therapy

Written by Dr. Thakkar

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Renewed interest in the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who helped develop an atomic bomb during World War II, has sparked many questions about nuclear radiation. One such question concerns the difference between nuclear radiation and medical radiation.

Though similar in some respects, the radiation released from an atomic bomb is very different from the radiation released from radiation therapy equipment. While nuclear fallout causes biological and environmental disasters, radiation therapy treats cancer and saves lives. 

In this blog, we offer a closer look at radiation as well as the myths and misconceptions surrounding radiation therapy.

What is Radiation?

The 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II have left a lasting impression on how we think about radiation. However, not all radiation is bad.

At its simplest, radiation refers to particles that carry energy and momentum. These particles are emitted from various sources, both natural and man-made. The sun, for instance, produces ultraviolet radiation. Meanwhile, the microwave in your kitchen heats leftovers using electromagnetic radiation.

Radiation can also be found in medical settings. Diagnostic tests like X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, and mammograms all rely on low doses of electromagnetic waves to create images of bones and internal structures. These images help doctors diagnose diseases.

Radiation has therapeutic applications as well. During radiation therapy, for example, controlled doses of radiation are directed at cancerous tumors. This radiation destroys cancer cells while minimizing damage to surrounding tissues. As a result, radiation therapy is considered one of the most effective cancer treatment modalities.

What’s the Difference Between Nuclear Radiation vs. Medical Radiation?

Despite its effectiveness, there are many myths about radiation therapy. One myth is that medical radiation is the same as what is found in atomic bombs and other nuclear weapons.

However, nuclear radiation is much more volatile than medical radiation. Exposure to nuclear fallout, or the radioactive particles that are dispersed after a nuclear explosion, can cause serious health issues such as radiation sickness, cancer, bone marrow suppression, and birth defects.

Comparatively, medical radiation is administered in much lower and more controlled doses. Though side effects are possible, strict protocols are followed to minimize unnecessary exposure and ensure patient safety.

Common Myths About Radiation

Beginning cancer treatment can be unnerving, especially if you don’t know what to expect from radiation therapy. To ease your nerves, we address many of the common myths and misconceptions about radiotherapy below.


Myth 1: All radiation is harmful.

Generally speaking, high doses of ionizing radiation to large portions of the body can cause health problems.

However, in a controlled medical setting, therapeutic radiation can be used to target and damage cancerous cells while minimizing the impact on healthy tissues and preserving the patient’s overall well-being.


Myth 2: Radiation therapy causes severe side effects.

Exactly how radiation therapy affects your body will depend on the treated area and radiation doses. While some patients experience very mild side effects of radiation therapy like fatigue, others will struggle with more severe symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and difficulty swallowing.

Because of this, your doctor will develop a cancer treatment plan to help you address all potential symptoms and maintain a semblance of normalcy during treatment. Your cancer care team will also monitor you closely during and after treatment, offering solutions to ease your discomfort.

Radiation therapy will make me sick.

Radiation therapy can make some patients feel unwell. But this isn’t always the case.

Though most people experience fatigue, whether or not you experience other side effects depends on the location of the radiation treatment.

Patients with breast cancer, for example, may experience coughing and shortness of breath because the radiation is being directed to their chest. Comparatively, patients with prostate cancer may experience bladder irritation and intimacy issues like erectile dysfunction.

Radiation will make me lose my hair.

If you are receiving radiation to the head, neck, or brain, temporary or permanent hair loss is possible. However, not all patients lose their hair. In certain cases, your cancer care team can also use techniques to spare hair follicles from radiation exposure.

Radiation will burn me.

Radiation therapy has the potential to cause skin irritation that resembles a burn. This irritation can range from mild redness to peeling and blistering.

Though uncomfortable, skin problems typically resolve once treatment ends. Your doctor can also prescribe salves to relieve your symptoms.


Myth 3: Radiation therapy is painful.

Radiation therapy is completely painless. Receiving external beam radiation therapy, for instance, is similar to receiving an X-ray.

During treatment, a machine will deliver radiation to the targeted area while you lie on a treatment table. Since you will need to stay very still during these sessions, you may experience some discomfort from holding your body in certain positions. Your cancer care team may prescribe pain relievers or suggest over-the-counter medications if this occurs.


Myth 4: Radiation exposure is cumulative and always dangerous.

It is true that repeated exposure to radiation over time can cause long-term health effects for organs directly near the part of the body being treated. With this in mind, radiation oncologists follow strict safety precautions.

Before beginning treatment, your radiation oncologist will consider your previous medical procedures and lifestyle to ensure that radiotherapy is appropriate. They will continue evaluating exposure risks during treatment, selecting the safest dose possible to achieve the intended result.


Myth 5: Radiation therapy often causes cancer.

It is true that radiation therapy has the potential to cause secondary cancers in the years after treatment. However, this risk is very low with modern techniques and is outweighed by the benefits of treatment.

Recent advancements in radiation therapy techniques and technologies also allow for more precise targeting of the radiation beam. This helps reduce the exposure of healthy tissues to radiation, minimizing the risk of radiation-induced cancers.

Benefits of Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy works by damaging the DNA in cancer cells, thereby inhibiting their ability to divide and grow.

This treatment modality is incredibly effective, so effective that 40 percent of individuals cured of cancer have received radiotherapy as part of their treatment plan1. Put simply, radiotherapy helps patients celebrate more birthdays and spend more time with the people they love.

There are other reasons why you may consider radiation therapy when working with your doctor to decide on a cancer treatment plan. These benefits include:

Local Treatment

Radiation therapy is a local treatment, meaning it only affects a specific area of the body. This minimizes damage to surrounding healthy tissue, resulting in fewer side effects compared to systemic treatments like chemotherapy.

Alternative to Surgery

For patients who are not suitable candidates for surgery, radiation therapy can provide an effective and minimally invasive treatment option.

Outpatient Treatment

Most radiation therapy sessions are outpatient procedures, allowing patients to return home after each session and maintain their daily routines.

Advanced Technology

Modern radiation therapy techniques have significantly advanced in terms of precision and control, allowing radiation oncologists to deliver higher doses of radiation more precisely to affected areas.

Tumor Shrinkage

Sometimes complete removal of a tumor is difficult because of its size or location. Surgically removing a lung cancer tumor, for instance, may be considered too risky.

In these cases, radiation therapy can be used to shrink the tumor before surgery. Known as neoadjuvant therapy, this treatment plan makes the surgical procedure more effective and less invasive.

Reduced Cancer Recurrence

Alternatively, patients may receive radiation therapy after surgery, chemotherapy, or another cancer treatment. Referred to as adjuvant therapy, this intervention eliminates any remaining cancer cells that might not have been destroyed during the primary treatment.

Palliative Care

Radiation therapy is also valuable for relieving symptoms and improving the quality of life in advanced or metastatic cancers. It can help reduce pain, bleeding, or other uncomfortable symptoms.

Safety Measures in Radiation Therapy

With so much misinformation on the internet, you may question the overall safety of radiation therapy.

Though it is completely normal to feel nervous about starting any cancer treatment, know this: Numerous protocols are in place to ensure the well-being of patients undergoing radiation therapy. These safety measures encompass all stages of the treatment process, from consultation to follow-up.

Key patient safety measures include:

Evaluation and Assessment

Before radiation therapy begins, your radiation oncologist will conduct a comprehensive evaluation to assess your medical history, medications, allergies, lifestyle, and overall suitability for radiation therapy. During this phase, your doctor will also discuss the potential benefits and risks of radiation therapy.

Simulation and Treatment Planning

Next, a team of experienced radiation oncologists, medical physicists, and dosimetrists will collaborate to create a highly customized treatment plan. This plan defines the appropriate radiation dose, treatment angles, and fields to maximize tumor control while minimizing exposure to healthy tissues.

During this step, your radiation oncologist and radiation therapist will also place you on a simulation machine. This specialized piece of equipment is used to obtain detailed images of your anatomy and precisely define the target area to be treated.


Since precision is key to treatment effectiveness, radiation oncologists use immobilization devices such as molds, masks, and cushions to ensure consistent patient positioning during treatment. Additionally, lead shielding is used to protect healthy tissues and organs from unnecessary radiation exposure.

Treatment Verification

Prior to each treatment session, your treatment plan will be carefully verified to ensure that the correct parameters and fields are being used. Any discrepancies will be addressed before treatment is administered.

Advanced Technology and Quality Assurance

State-of-the-art radiation therapy technologies, such as intensity-modulated radiation therap​​y and image-guided radiation therapy, allow for the precise delivery of radiation. Advancements in treatment planning software and technologies also ensure that radiation doses are carefully calculated to maximize effectiveness and minimize side effects.

To further safeguard patient health, radiation therapists conduct regular quality assurance calibrations on treatment machines. This ensures that the equipment is functioning properly.

Monitoring and Follow-Up

Patients are closely monitored by their cancer care team throughout the course of treatment. During regular follow-up appointments, medical professionals work with patients to alleviate side effects and modify treatment plans if needed.

Let SERO Be Your Trusted Authority

Radiation therapy is a very safe and highly effective cancer treatment modality that targets and destroys cancer cells while minimizing damage to healthy tissues. Rigorous safety protocols, advanced technologies, and careful monitoring further enhance patient well-being.

Unfortunately, there are countless myths about radiation therapy circulating on the internet. That being said, it is crucial that patients rely on reputable sources when making decisions regarding something so vital as cancer treatment.

For those in the Charlotte area, SERO at is here to provide accurate information and top-notch radiation therapy services. Contact us to learn more or schedule an appointment.