Radiation therapy

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy, also known as radiotherapy, is a cancer treatment that uses high levels of radiation to eradicate cancer cells and reduce the size of tumors.

Who administers radiation therapy?

Radiotherapy is administered by a team of medical professionals led by a radiation oncologist. This team typically includes radiation therapists and radiation therapy technologists who work together to plan and deliver radiation treatment to patients with cancer or other medical conditions requiring radiation therapy.

What are the goals of radiation therapy?

The goals of radiation therapy depend on the type and stage of the cancer. Radiation therapy can be used in various ways:

  • Primary treatment: Radiation therapy may be the main treatment to eliminate all cancer cells and prevent their recurrence.
  • Neoadjuvant radiation therapy: It can be given before other treatments like surgery to shrink a large tumor, making it easier to remove.
  • Adjuvant radiation therapy: After other treatments, radiation therapy may be administered to destroy any remaining cancer cells.
  • Palliative radiation therapy: It can be used to relieve cancer symptoms and improve the patient’s quality of life.

Radiation therapy is effective for many cancer types. It can be used alone or in combination with other treatments. It is also used to treat recurrent cancer (cancer that comes back after treatment) and metastatic cancer (cancer that spreads to other body parts).

How is radiation therapy administered?

There are two main types of radiation therapy: external beam and internal.

External Beam Radiation Therapy

External beam radiation therapy delivers radiation from a machine outside the body, aiming precise beams at the cancerous area. The process involves the following steps:

  • Simulation: During the simulation, the radiation therapy team ensures that the patient is in a comfortable position. The patient will lie down on a treatment table. Cushions and props will help keep the patient still. Body molds might be used for stability. The team marks the radiation target area using markers or small tattoos based on the requirements. Sometimes, imaging tests like CT scans or MRI are used to plan radiation delivery.
  • Treatment sessions: During each treatment session, the patient lies on a treatment table while the radiation machine rotates around them. The machine does not touch the patient but moves to direct radiation from multiple angles, precisely targeting the tumor.
  • Daily treatments: External beam radiation therapy is typically delivered in daily sessions, five days a week, over several weeks. Each session is relatively short, lasting only a few minutes.

Internal Radiation Therapy

Internal radiation therapy is typically done in an outpatient treatment room or hospital setting. Anesthesia will be given during the procedure to ensure the patient does not experience any pain or discomfort.

  1. Brachytherapy
    • During the procedure, a small, flexible tube called a catheter or an applicator device is inserted to deliver the radioactive implants directly to the tumor. Imaging techniques like X-ray, ultrasound, or MRI are used to ensure precise and accurate placement of the radiation source.
    • Once the catheter is in place, the radiation source, which may be in the form of seeds, ribbons, or capsules, is delivered through the catheter to the targeted area.
    • Brachytherapy may be permanent or temporary, depending on the type and stage of cancer.
  2. Systemic Therapy
    • In systemic therapy, a radioactive fluid is introduced into the body through an intravenous (IV) line, swallowing, or injection.
    • The radioactive fluid travels through the bloodstream, targeting and destroying cancer cells throughout the body.
    • As the radioactive fluid circulates in the body, it emits radiation to attack cancer cells effectively.

What are radiation therapy side effects?

Radiation therapy may cause side effects, which vary depending on the treated area and individual factors. Common side effects include:

  • Fatigue
  • Reduced appetite
  • Skin changes in the treated area (redness, dryness, or sensitivity)
  • Hair loss
  • Nausea and vomiting (if abdomen or pelvis are treated)
  • Urinary and bladder problems

The healthcare team will work to minimize side effects and provide supportive care.


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