Months to years after undergoing radiation therapy for cancer treatment, some patients may experience what is called late radiation tissue injury.
An example of this is tissue radionecrosis, which is the damage of skin, soft tissue or bone in the area of the body that was exposed to radiation. About 5 to 15 percent of patients who are treated with radiation therapy will ultimately develop late radiation tissue injury, and these patients may benefit from hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT).
“Radiation is a very effective treatment for many cancer patients,” said Natalie Cooper, M.D. of Kootenai Clinic Wound Care. “Unfortunately it can also have some negative side effects, one of which is the destruction of noncancerous cells. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber. This therapy helps to treat late radiation tissue injury by stimulating new blood vessels to grow, which can help reverse some of this tissue damage.”
A unique case
Gary Love is one of Dr. Cooper’s patients who developed soft tissue radionecrosis after undergoing cancer treatment in 2016. Several months after completing radiation therapy for tonsillar cancer, Gary developed pain in the back of his throat that prevented him from swallowing.
“Gary’s case is unique in that he had no open ulcer or wound but still had degraded, fibrotic tissues that could benefit from HBOT,” Dr. Cooper said. “He was unable to eat anything by mouth when we began treatment and relied on a feeding tube for nutrition.”
In 2016, Gary and his wife, Gina, moved to northern Idaho after he retired from the Air Force as a civilian employee in Oklahoma. Just months after the big move, Gary was diagnosed with tonsillar cancer.
“We moved to northern Idaho because it’s a halfway point between our sons, who live in Alaska and Connecticut,” he said. “I also really love to hunt and fish—this seemed like a great area for us to retire. I’m looking forward to enjoying life here now that my treatment is done.”
After completing eight weeks of HBOT in conjunction with other treatments, Gary is finally eating normally again—and looking forward to visiting his children and grandchildren.
“There was a period of time I didn’t want to leave the house because I didn’t want to try and eat out in public,” he said. “I think the hyperbaric treatment was the biggest factor in my recovery, and I feel like I’ll be able to travel again. You know, you can never get enough visits with your grandkids.”
Hope for healing
Dr. Cooper encourages patients who are experiencing symptoms possibly related to previous radiation treatment to discuss their symptoms with their oncologist or primary care provider and to request a referral to a hyperbaric medicine specialist. Currently most insurance plans cover treatment for a diagnosis of osteoradionecrosis, soft tissue radionecrosis, radiation cystitis, radiation enteritis or radiation proctitis.
“Since the symptoms of late radiation tissue injury don’t occur until months or even years after the patient has completed radiation therapy, the diagnosis is often overlooked—so it is important for patients to talk to their doctors and make mention of their history of radiation treatment,” Dr. Cooper said. “Our clinic can help determine if the patient will potentially benefit from treatment with hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and we look forward to making a positive impact in the lives of some of these patients.”
To learn more about hyperbaric oxygen therapy and other wound treatment options, visit KH.org/wound-care or call (208) 625-6944.