Radiation Therapy to Treat Cancer

Doctor and Patient

As one of the most common cancer treatments, radiation therapy is versatile and can be used to treat cancer in different stages. Radiation therapy can also be used, based on the types available, to treat specific cancers that other forms of treatment may not.

Goals of Radiation

Radiation treatments are often recommended in a few circumstances. Due to the process of the treatment and how it works, it can be beneficial in cancer treatment efforts. Generally, radiation treatments are part of a treatment plan that can include other methods, such as surgery. Each reason for radiation treatment has its own set of goals.

The first purpose of radiation is to stop cancer from recurring. In this instance, radiation is used to target areas of cancerous tissue. It often follows surgical removal of tumors. The main goal is to ensure that any remaining unseen cancer cells will not spread or form new tumors.

Another purpose of radiation therapy is to treat cancer that has recurred. Radiation treatment is often recommended to treat large cancerous tumors before surgical removal. Additionally, in recurred cancer, radiation is ideal for killing cancer cells that might have been missed during tumor removal.

A final goal of radiation treatment is for palliative care. This is commonly chosen when cancer is advanced, cannot be effectively cured, and tumor growths cannot be surgically removed. In this instance, the radiation treatments are used to shrink tumors and provide symptoms relief.

External Radiation

As one of the three delivery systems for radiation treatment, this method involves administering concentrated radiation beams to specific areas. It is also known as targeted radiation. A machine, called a linear accelerator, is used to aim beams of radiation to specific tumors or areas with multiple tumors. This method causes less damage to healthy tissue. The ability to highly focus the beams can allow for the use of higher levels of radiation to treat more aggressive cancers.

Different Types of External Radiation

Image guided radiation involves the use of CT scans before each treatment. The CT scan shows the precise location of tumors, allowing doctors to focus on each tumor or group of tumors. This maximized control is often also used to determine if previous treatments to specific tumors show signs of success.

Helical-tomotherapy involves using a donut-shaped machine. Also called Rotating Gamma Technology™, the machine circles around the body as it emits radiation beams. It hits a tumor with the beams from multiple directions, allowing for precise treatment at multiple angles. Tumors that have grown through tissue are commonly treated with this form.

In comparison to helical-tomotherapy, three-dimensional conformal radiation works similarly. The radiation beams are also delivered at multiple angles, but with one difference. In this method, the beams are focused to match the shape of the targeted tumor.

Intensity modulated radiation treatment works like the other two methods. In this method, however, the strength of the beam is changed for certain spots. Beam strength is increased to hit the middle of the tumor and then decreased around the outside of the tumor and surrounding healthy tissue.

Intraoperative radiation is a method used during surgery. It is often chosen when all of the tumor cannot be removed. If the cancer is more aggressive and highly metastatic, there is an increased risk of recurrence. In this case, intraoperative radiation may be chosen.

Internal Radiation Therapy

Internal radiation, also called brachytherapy, involves the use of an implant to deliver radiation. These implants are placed directly on the tumor or as close to it as possible. Implants can be shaped like seeds, pellets, capsules, tubes, or balloons.

There are two types of implants that can be used. Intracavitary implants are placed inside a body cavity. Interstitial implants are not placed in a body cavity but are implanted near tumors.

Systemic Radiation

Some types of cancer, including bone cancer, cannot be treated with traditional radiation methods. These cancers often do not present with primary tumors, although secondary tumors can occur and receive traditional radiation treatments. The primary cancer is often treated with systemic radiation.

Systemic radiation uses radioactive pharmaceuticals. They are administered orally or into the bloodstream through an IV. The pharmaceuticals travel through the whole body. They contain a special antibody that causes the radioactive molecules to locate and stick to cancer cells. Once adhered, the molecules release radiation.

Side Effects

Side effects experienced will depend on the area of the body being treated. Radiation treatments work on a cellular level to kill cancerous cells but it also affects healthy cells. General side effects can include fatigue, fertility issues, skin changes, and hair loss. Other symptoms include nausea, headache, appetite changes, weight loss, and urinary issues.

Performing Treatment and Frequency

External radiation treatments are generally performed on an outpatient basis and do not require a hospital stay. Treatments may be given in a specialist’s office or at a hospital. More than one treatment is required. The treatments usually occur at once a day, five days a week, allowing weekend recovery time. They last between five and eight weeks. In comparison, systemic radiation is performed in a protected hospital room and involves a hospital stay for a day or two.

Radiation treatment with an implant is slightly different. An implant can be left in place on a temporary basis or a semi-permanent basis. Temporary implants can be in place for a few minutes or days. Semi-permanent implants can be left for days, weeks, or months. The type of cancer, other treatments, and overall health play a role in determining how long the implant stays.

Radiation therapy is one of the most common methods of cancer treatment. It is minimally invasive and has fewer or less severe side effects than other options. It can be beneficial in killing cancer cells to trigger remission, or as a means of reducing symptoms experienced from cancer.

Beverly Oncology & Imaging offers state-of-the-art medical technology with greater convenience than hospitals can offer. We are leaders in our field, using cutting-edge technology like Rotating Gamma Technology™, External Beam therapy, and brachytherapy. Contact us today to discuss treatment options or to make an appointment.

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