A type of cancer treatment, radiation therapy utilizes x-rays or other kinds of high-energy particles to eliminate cancer cells. Medical doctors who focus on using
Radiation therapy to combat cancer are called radiation oncologists. A radiation therapy schedule often includes a certain course of treatments that are applied over a time frame
Radiation therapy can address a wide range of cancers. Radiation therapy also can be utilized in addition to other types of cancer treatments including chemotherapy or surgery.
What to Expect Before, During, and After Treatment
After a diagnosis is made, you will likely talk with your primary care physician in addition to other cancer specialists including a surgeon, a medical oncologist, and a radiation oncologist to review your treatment choices. These professionals will work together to help suggest the best treatment options for you. In some situations, your cancer must be treated through the use of more than one kind of treatment. In addition to radiation, you might also receive chemotherapy to destroy cancer cells that have traveled to other locations in your body.
Before treatment, you will often meet with a radiation oncologist. If you are debating radiation therapy, you should meet initially with a radiation oncologist to determine if radiation is suitable for you. During this visit, the doctor will assess your need for radiation as well as the likely results of therapy. The doctor will review your medical issues, medical history, family history, medications, allergies, and other details that could end up impacting treatment.
Radiation Therapy as a Method of Treating Cancer
Cancer starts when a healthy cell changes and grows uncontrollably. The entirety of the cells in a person’s body proceed through a pattern to develop. Cancer cells proceed through the development phase at a quicker pace than normal cells. Instead, radiation therapy harms the DNA of cells so cells are damaged and can even stop growing.
In contrast to other cancer treatments that impact the entirety of a person’s body including chemotherapy, therapy involving radiation is often localized which means that this method only impacts body parts where cancer is found. Healthy tissue close to cancerous cells might be harmed during treatment, but the body often heals significantly following the treatment’s conclusion.
While many kinds of therapy involving radiation exist, each helps to destroy cancerous cells.
The Aim of Radiation Therapy
The focus of radiation therapy depends on the kind of cancer you are facing as well as whether and the degree to which cancer has branched out. Radiation therapy can be provided by itself or as one aspect of care treatment. Some ways that radiation therapy is utilized include:
- As the main treatment. In many cases, the focus of radiation therapy is to remove the cancerous mass and stop it from returning.
- Before other treatments like surgery to reduce the size of a tumor, radiation referred to as “neoadjuvant radiation” therapy is sometimes given.
- Following other treatments, “adjuvant radiation” therapy is sometimes given to eliminate any cancer cells that remain.
- To ease the symptoms associated with cancer, “palliative radiation” therapy is sometimes used to ease the signs of cancer.
Radiation therapy is utilized to treat various forms of cancer. Over half the people who are diagnosed with cancer receive at least some kind of radiation therapy. For certain kinds of cancer, radiation therapy alone might be a suitable option. Other cancer types react the most positively to a mixture of types of treatment. Radiation therapy can be utilized to treat recurrent cancer and metastatic cancer as well. While recurrent cancer refers to cancer that returns following treatment, metastatic cancer refers to cancer that has branched out throughout a person’s body.
The Types of External Beam Radiation Therapy
The most popular type of radiation therapy is external-beam radiation therapy which emanates radiation from equipment located outside a person’s body. External-beam radiation therapy can be utilized to treat substantial portions of a person’s body if required.
Equipment referred to as a linear accelerator (linac) creates a beam of radiation for either x-rays or photon radiation therapy. Computer technology allows medical professionals to alter both the size as well as the shape of the beam of radiation which can help to target a cancerous mass while steering clear of healthy tissue.
Radiation therapy is often given each weekday for weeks. Medical professionals utilize either a mask made of plastic mesh or form-fitting supports for the area above a person’s neck to aid an individual remain still and ensure that the beam collides with the same location each time.
The different kinds of external-beam radiation therapy that exist are:
- Three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT). This kind of radiation therapy involves complex three-dimensional portraits of cancer created through either magnetic resonance imaging or computed tomography. The team providing treatment relies on this imagery to focus the beam. By utilizing this strategy, the team providing treatment can use higher radiation dosage while reducing harm to healthy tissue. This reduces the chances of side effects.
- Intensity-modulated radiation therapy. This is one of the more nuanced types of radiation therapy. This method is also different from traditional 3D-CRT, which utilizes the same intensity with each beam. Intensity-modulated radiation therapy focuses on the tumor and bypasses healthy tissue more effectively than traditional 3D-CRT.
- Proton beam therapy. This type of treatment utilizes protons instead of x-rays. Protons are positively charged particles. At high energy, protons destroy cancerous cells. Protons are relayed to targeted tumors and deposit certain doses of radiation therapy. In contrast to x-ray beams, small radiation doses go past proton therapy. Proton therapy is a new type of treatment that requires unique equipment. The method is currently only utilized to treat a limited number of cancers.
- Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT). This method utilizes imaging during radiation treatment. Images are taken both before and during treatment compared to images recorded before treatment started. This method helps doctors position radiation in a precise manner.
- Stereotactic radiation therapy. This method delivers a significant dosage to a small tumor location. A patient receiving stereotactic radiation therapy must remain as still as possible. This method is often given a single treatment or in less than 10 treatments. Some individuals need more than one round of this treatment.
The Role of Internal Radiation Therapy
Internal radiation therapy is referred to as brachytherapy. This kind of radiation therapy involves the placement of radioactive material into either cancer or its surrounding tissue. Implants can be temporary or permanent, while treatment may or may not necessitate a stay in the hospital. Some of the different types of internal radiation therapy include:
- Permanent implants. These small steel seeds are capsule-sized and contain radioactive material. These implants deliver most of the radiation therapy around an implant area. Some radiation, however, occasionally exits a person’s body. This means a medical professional must follow safety measures to guard others against radiation exposure. The implants gradually lose radioactive quality as time passes. At this point, inactive seeds stay in a person’s body.
- Temporary internal radiation therapy. This type of therapy is given through a needle, a tube-like catheter, and special applicators. Radiation remains in the body for a length between a few minutes to at most a few days. Most people receive internal radiation therapy for several minutes. Occasionally, internal radiation therapy is given for a longer duration. In these situations, a person remains in a private room to limit other people’s radiation exposure.
Other Radiation Therapy Treatment Options
Some of the other radiation therapy treatment options include:
- Intraoperative radiation therapy. This treatment method delivers radiation therapy to a tumor during surgery through the use of either internal-beam or external-beam radiation therapy. This method lets surgeons push healthy tissue out of the way of interference during radiation therapy. This method is helpful when vital organs are near the tumor.
- This type of system therapy utilizes monoclonal antibodies, which are proteins attracted to certain markets on the outside of cancer cells to deliver radiation directly to tumors. Because treatment utilizes special antibodies, there is less impact on the surrounding normal tissue.
- Radiosensitizers and radioprotectors. Medical professionals are studying radiosensitizers as well as radioprotectors. Radiosensitizers are substances that help radiation therapy eliminate tumors. Radioprotectors are substances that guard healthy tissues close to the treatment location.
- Systemic radiation therapy. Patients either swallow or are given an injection of radioactive material that focuses on cancer cells. Radioactive material exits the body in the form of various fluids including saliva, sweat, and urine. Due to the radioactive nature of this waste material, people who come into close interaction with a person receiving this treatment should take safety precautions suggested by the team overseeing your medical care.
Who Will Comprise Your Radiation Team
A team of medical professionals will be involved in providing your radiation care. The team will be led by a radiation oncologist, which is a doctor who focuses on using radiation to combat cancer. The people who will make up your team include:
- Radiation oncologists. These are the doctors who oversee radiation treatment. These doctors work with other members of your radiation team to create a treatment plan to make sure that treatment is appropriately given.
- Medical physicists. These individuals work with radiation oncologists during treatment delivery and planning. These professionals make sure that complex treatment is adequately personalized to each person.
- These workers function in combination with radiation oncologists and medical physicists to determine the dose of radiation to make sure that tumors receive enough radiation.
- Radiation therapists. These workers function in combination with radiation oncologists to give daily radiation treatment under a doctor’s prescription and supervision. These therapists maintain detailed records and routinely check treatment machines.
- Radiation oncology nurses. These nurses work in combination with the other members of your team to make sure you receive appropriate treatment both during and after treatment. These nurses explain the potential side effects that patients might experience and determine how patients are doing throughout treatment.
- Social workers. These professionals exist to offer various support services to both you and your family. Social workers offer counseling to help you and your loved ones deal with the diagnosis of cancer as well as your treatment.
- These workers can help make sure that you eat appropriately during treatment and can rewrite your eating plan if treatment impacts your appetite.
How Radiation Therapy Helps to Combat Cancer
At higher doses, radiation therapy eliminates cancer cells or slows their growth by damaging their DNA. Cancer cells with damaged DNA are beyond repair and stop dividing. After the damaged cells pass away, they break down and must be removed by the body.
Radiation therapy does not immediately terminate cancer cells. Instead, it often takes days or even longer before DNA is damaged substantially enough to die. At this point, cancer cells continue dying for weeks after radiation therapy is discontinued.
The Reason Why People With Cancer Receive Radiation Treatment
Radiation therapy is utilized to treat cancer and reduce the symptoms of cancer. When utilized to treat cancer, radiation therapy can cure cancer as well as prevent it from returning or hasten its growth. When medical professionals utilize radiation treatment to ease symptoms, they are referred to as palliative treatment. External beam radiation can reduce tumors to combat pain as well as other difficulties caused by the tumor including difficulty breathing.
The Types of Cancer Treated with Radiation Therapy
External beam radiation is utilized to combat various types of cancer. Brachytherapy is most commonly utilized to treat cancer involving the head, eye, breast, prostate, and cervix. Systemic radiation therapy referred to as radioactive iodine (I-131) is most frequently utilized to combat some types of thyroid cancer.
Another kind of systemic radiation therapy known as targeted radionuclide therapy is utilized to treat some people who have late-stage prostate cancer.
How Radiation Is Combined with Other Cancer Treatment
Radiation is not the only treatment that some people with cancer receive. Most frequently, a person has radiation therapy in combination with other cancer treatments including chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and surgery. Radiation therapy may be given after, during, or before other types of cancer treatment to increase the odds that treatment is successful. The timing of when radiation treatment is given depends on the type of cancer treated and whether the focus of radiation therapy is to treat cancer or its symptoms. If radiation is combined with surgery, it can be given:
- Before surgery to reduce the size of cancer so it can be removed by surgery and less likely to return
- During surgery, it goes directly to the cancer without spreading through the skin. Radiation therapy utilized this way is referred to as intraoperative radiation. With this technique, medical professionals can better protect surrounding tissues from radiation.
Limits on Lifetime Radiation Dosage
Limits exist to the amount of radiation that a person’s body can safely receive throughout a person’s life. Based on how much radiation an area has already received, a person might not be able to receive radiation therapy a second time. If one part of the body has already received a safe lifetime radiation dosage, another location of the body might still receive treatment if an adequate distance exists between the two areas.
Radiation Treatment and Safety for Families and Patients
Medical professionals have effectively and safely utilized radiation therapy to combat cancer for over 100 years. Similar to other methods of treating cancer, radiation therapy can result in side effects. As a result, you should consult with your medical professional about what you should anticipate as well as the experiences you encounter both during and after treatment.
While most people do not feel pain following treatment delivery, the treatment side effects often gradually build up. Some of the most common treatment side effects include discomfort as well as skin changes.
Receiving radiation gradually increases the chances a person will develop secondary cancer. For many individuals, radiation therapy removes the current cancer, though. This advantage surpasses the small chance that treatment could lead to a new type of cancer.
During external beam therapy, a patient does not emanate radiation of any degree after receiving radiation treatment. Instead, any radiation stays in the room where treatment is provided. Internal radiation therapy results in a patient giving off radiation. Consequently, visitors should adhere to safety precautions. Unless the patient’s medical provider states otherwise, some of the steps that a patient should follow include:
- Remain 6 feet and greater from the patient’s bed
- Restrict your visiting time to half an hour or under
- Permanent implants stay radioactive after a person exits the hospital. Due to this, for several months after receiving treatment, a person should not have over 5 minutes of interaction with the young or the pregnant
People who receive radiation to treat cancer should adhere to safety guidelines. Some of the safety precautions that a person should often follow during the beginning days of treatment include:
- Abstain from sexual activity
- Drink adequate fluids to remove any radioactive material remaining in your body
- Utilize separate utensils and towels
- Wash your hands after each time you use the toilet