What is Radiation Therapy and how does it work?

The use of high-energy x-rays or particles to treat cancer is called radiation therapy. Highly sophisticated equipment is used to aim and deliver the radiation to the tumors or diseased areas of the body. Radiation therapy may be used alone, or combined with surgery and/or chemotherapy.

Radiation therapy causes changes in the genetic material of the cells being treated, making it impossible for these cells to continue to grow and divide. Cancer cells have an abnormally rapid growth cycle. Because healthy cells grow and divide much more slowly than cancer cells, normal tissues have more time to recover from the radiation so are not as adversely affected. Most normal cells can recover from the effects of radiation and function properly. The goal of radiation therapy is to damage as many cancer cells as possible, while limiting harm to nearby healthy tissue.

There are numerous methods of delivering the radiation that involve different procedures and equipment. The method used will depend on the part of the body involved and the treatment goal. For example, certain methods allow the radiation to penetrate more deeply into the body than can others. Some methods allow it to be finely controlled to treat small areas. Other techniques are better suited for treating larger areas. Doctors create highly specific treatment plans that are tailored to each individual patient.

When is Radiation Therapy used?

More than half of all cancer patients now receive some type of radiation therapy. Unlike chemotherapy, radiation is a localized treatment, meaning that only cells in the area being treated are affected. Radiation may be used in early stage cancers to cure or control the disease. It can be used before surgery to shrink the tumor or after surgery to prevent the cancer from coming back. Radiation may also be used to treat symptoms such as pain caused by cancer that has spread from the original site.

Radiation therapy may be used to treat almost every type of solid tumor, including cancers of the brain, breast, gynecological areas, larynx, lung, pancreas, prostate, skin, spine, stomach, uterus, or soft tissue sarcomas.

For some types of cancer, radiation may be given to areas that do not have evidence of cancer to prevent cancer cells from growing in that area. This approach is called prophylactic radiation therapy. Radiation can also be given to help reduce symptoms such as pain from cancer that has spread to the bones or other parts of the body. This is called palliative radiation therapy.

What are the main types of Radiation Therapy and what kind will I receive?

The majority of people who are treated with radiation therapy for cancer receive external beam radiation therapy, which is delivered by a machine outside the body. Internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy) is the use of radioactive materials that are placed within the body.

Your doctor will determine what type of radiation you need and the best technique to use based on the type of cancer you have, its location, how far into the body the radiation needs to go, your general health and medical history, whether you will have other types of cancer treatment, and other factors.