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What Is Radiation Therapy?

John Bankston John Bankston December 15, 2021
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

Radiation is usually something to avoid. In classic horror films, radiation exposure led to oversized ants, spiders, and even Godzilla. In real life, excessive radiation exposure can cause cancer. Yet, in directed doses, it can also help cure it. So what is radiation therapy, how is it used, and what are its risks?

 

Radiation to the Rescue

 

Cancer occurs when damaged cells in your body reproduce endlessly instead of dying off. Their flawed genetic code is not only passed on but these cells can actually attack healthy cells. You might detect them during self examination or your doctor may discover them during a check up. Although some masses of cells are benign, others are cancerous tumors. When they are discovered, depending on the location and type of cancer, you may be offered any number of treatment options including surgery or chemotherapy –– special drugs that can kill cancer cells.

 

Radiation has been used as a cancer treatment for well over a century. Just one year after Wilhelm Conrad Rцntgen discovered X-rays in 1895, Emil Herman Grubbe used them to treat a breast cancer patient. In the early 1900s, radiation was a common skin cancer treatment. By the 1930s, it was employed to treat a variety of tumors. Unfortunately, the therapy wasn’t targeted –– healthy cells were often killed along with the cancerous ones. Further, the side effects from radiation treatment were quite severe, even fatal. Devices developed in the 1970s and 1980s used a directed proton beam –– greatly improving outcomes –– while recent advances in computing have improved the therapy’s efficacy. 

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Cancer - Advances in Treatment

Cancer - Advances in Treatment

When a beam of radiation is directed toward cancer cells, they can shrink and even die. Sometimes it’s used in concert with other treatments like surgery or chemotherapy. Other times, it’s used by itself.  Because it can reduce the size of tumors, it has even been used to help patients feel better when a cancerous mass is inoperable. Today, more than 50% of cancer patients receive some form of radiation therapy

 

How You’ll Be Treated

 

The most common form of this treatment is external beam radiation therapy which usually relies on a linear accelerator. This directs high-energy beams that precisely target the cancerous area. Prior to treatment, you’ll likely undergo a CT scan so that your medical team not only knows where the beam will be aimed but also if external beam radiation therapy will be effective. There are also treatments using radiation called brachytherapy. This type of internal therapy uses radiation-containing capsules, ribbons, or seeds which are planted inside your body in or near the cancerous area. 

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Cancer - Radiation Types

Cancer - Radiation Types

If you opt for external radiation therapy, you’ll likely be committing to treatment for five days a week. Often it can last several weeks. Most treatments are on an outpatient basis at  a medical center. Upon arrival, you’ll be positioned on a special table. Cushions will be arranged to keep you comfortable; you may also be strapped down. That’s because it’s essential that you remain immobile throughout the process. The radiation therapy team uses markers or even a tattoo to indicate the part of your body that will be treated. They’ll be nearby as the linear accelerator passes over your body. Although the entire process can last 30 minutes or more, the actual treatment is over in a matter of minutes.

 

During radiation therapy, common side effects include permanent hair loss around the treatment site, nausea, and loss of appetite. Some 40% of patients who are in remission receive radiation therapy as part of their treatment. For researchers, reducing side effects and negative treatment outcomes remains a priority. 

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