The use of radiation for medical treatments dates to the late 1800s, and was successfully used as cancer therapy beginning in the 1930s. Now, advanced radiation therapies are helping treat cancer with fewer side effects.
Cancer cells divide rapidly and grow out of control.
“Radiation therapy kills cancer cells that are dividing, but it also affects dividing cells of normal tissues,” reports the American Cancer Society. “The damage to normal cells causes unwanted side effects. Radiation therapy is always a balance between destroying the cancer cells and minimizing damage to the normal cells.”
In the past, many people experienced complications from radiation therapy. The situation now is much different. Instead of applying patients with high doses of radiation, today, doctors focus on precise delivery of radiation using high-tech instruments and methods. This results in far fewer side effects and fewer complications from radiation.
Doctors also focus on specific types of cancer and tailor radiation treatments to the needs of individual patients, explains Dr. Subhakar Mutyala, professor and medical director of radiation oncology at The University of Arizona Cancer Center at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.
According to the American Society for Radiation Oncology, breast cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer makeup 56 percent of all patients receiving radiation therapy.
Treatments are generally divided into internal or external therapy.
This method delivers radiation internally through a device resembling seeds, ribbons or wires implanted into the body.
“It’s a way to treat cancer from the inside out,” notes Mutyala.
High-energy radiation waves emanating from the implants kill fast-growing cancer cells while minimizing damage to healthy tissue. The National Cancer Institute notes the brachytherapy sources can be temporary or permanent, depending on the type of cancer and the treatment protocol.
True Beam Linear Accelerator
This machine is the foundation for a variety of external radiation therapies. The accelerator is a large piece of high-tech equipment that aims radiation directly at the cancer. The machine moves around you without touching you and it doesn’t hurt. The radiation can’t be seen, felt or smelled.
Some types of treatment using the linear accelerator include:
External beam radiation — This common cancer treatment uses high doses of radiation to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors.
Image-guided radiotherapy — A computer image or map of a tumor is created using CT, ultrasound, X-ray, or other imaging techniques. The computer then guides the linear accelerator’s radiation beam during radiation therapy.
Intensity-modulated radiation therapy — This system creates a 3-D radiation therapy using the linear accelerator and computer-generated images to show the size and shape of the tumor. Thin beams of radiation of different intensities are aimed at the tumor from many angles. This type of radiation therapy reduces the damage to healthy tissue near the tumor.
Stereotactic radiosurgery — This specialized treatment is for cancerous and noncancerous tumors in the brain or spinal cord. The treatment technology delivers beams of high-dose radiation with extreme accuracy and provides a pain-free, nonsurgical option for patients who have inoperable or surgically complex tumors.
Stereotactic body radiation therapy — Names of tools used in this procedure like Gamma Knife and CyberKnife are a little misleading. This robotic radiosurgery system treats cancerous and noncancerous tumors of the kidney, liver, lung, pancreas, prostate and spine. There is no cutting involved. The names refer to the precision with which radiation is directed to tumors.
“Radiation oncology is one of the most sophisticated and quickly evolving areas of medicine,” states cancercompass.com. “From computer-assisted techniques to the application of particle physics, innovations in radiation therapy have the ability to precisely target the site of the cancer while sparing surrounding healthy tissue.”
If you or someone you know is concerned about the effectiveness and potential side effects of radiation treatments, you should discuss your concerns with a physician who specializes in radiation therapy for specific cancers.