Radiation Therapy

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Cancer is a dreadful disease and a very hard test for whoever is inflicted with it. Caused by abnormal functioning of cells in the body, cancer is a battle that’s hard to fight. With modern technologies and advancement in the medical science however, even a disease like cancer has treatments to cure the patient and help them get through this dreadful test. The treatment for cancer can be done through many different therapies. One of these treatment therapies is the Radiation Therapy. It is also known as Radio therapy and is sometimes abbreviated as RT, RTX or XRT.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy basically kills the cancer cells in patient’s body by using very high energy beams of radiation. Most of the power used by radiation therapy is taken from X-rays. Other than that, power for radiation therapies can also be taken from protons and some other kind of energies. The goal of the therapy is to damage or kill cancerous cells without damaging or affecting the healthy cells.

The therapy stops cancer cells from spreading by using the high doses of radiation. This radiation may come from different sources which could be external, internal, from special machines or from substances that are radioactive in nature and are put inside the patient by the doctor [1].

Radiation Therapy as Treatment

There are multiple types of radiation therapies. The therapy that a particular patient should be treated with depends on several factors. These factors include:

  • Type of cancer that the patient has
  • Size of the cancer in patient’s body
  • Stage of the cancer in patient
  • Location of the cancer in the body
  • How near cancer is to the normal and healthy tissues of patient’s body. This is important because the healthy tissues may be very sensitive to radiation.
  • The length that is needed for radiation to travel in the body
  • Patient’s medical history and his general overall health.
  • Age and other medically sensitive conditions
  • Other types of cancer treatments that patient might be receiving already

The beams coming from an external machine during this radiation target those beams at some specific point on the patient’s body. The radiation works by destroying that genetic material which controls the division and control of cells. The therapy inevitably destroys a few normal and healthy cells as well, but its goal however is to minimize the number of those cells destroyed.

Cancer can occur at any part of the patient’s body and hence there are various types of cancers. Radiation therapy can be used by the doctors to treat all types of cancer. Besides the cancerous tumors, therapy can be used to treat non cancerous (benign tumors) as well.

The patient may be asked to use radiation therapy as a treatment option at different times for different reasons during their treatment [2]. These reasons include:

  • Radiation therapy as the only option for cancer treatment
  • As neoadjuvant therapy; this is done before the surgery in order to shrink a cancerous tumor.
  • As Adjuvant therapy; this is done after the surgery in order to stop any of the cancer cells that are remaining to grow further.
  • As a combination with other treatments of cancer including chemotherapy. This is done to destroy cancer cells.
  • As a part of advanced cancer in order to alleviate symptoms that have been caused by cancer.

Planning of Radiation Therapy

There are specialized doctors for radiation therapy. These radiation oncologists develop a treatment plan for the patients. The process of treatment planning begins with simulation [3]. During simulation, a patient’s tumor and normal areas around it are shown in detailed scanned images. The different types of scans include computer tomography commonly known as CT scan, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Positron emission tomography (PET) and ultrasound scans. All these scans are used for the process but CT scans are the most common.

CT scans are usually used in treatment planning for radiation therapy. During scanning, the patient’s internal body pictures are created by linking the computer to an X-Ray machine. While simulation is being done, the patient is required to stay in the exact same position every day in relation the machine that is doing the imaging. To enable the patient to stay still easily, they are given head masks and body molds. Other devices are also used to help make the patient stay still.

After the process of simulation, the oncologist determines area of the patient’s body that needs to be treated along with the dose of radiation that will be delivered to the tumor. Safest angle for delivering the radiation beams is also determined. Advanced machines and sophisticated computers are used by the oncologists in order to design details of the radiation plan that will be used. After the plan is approved, the oncologist gives authority to begin the treatment. On treatment’s first day and a week after that, various checks are done to make sure that treatments are going as planned. The unit that measures radiation doses for treatment is gray and measures the energy amount of radiation that’s absorbed 1 kg of human tissue. Different types of cancer cells are killed by using different types of radiation.

Some types of tissue are more easily damaged by radiation than the others. All of these factors taken into consideration by the oncologists while planning the treatment. If any area of the patient’s body has already been exposed to radiation therapy previously, the patient might not be able to have therapy there again. It however depends on the amount of radiation that was given to them initially. Area that has been selected for treatment usually includes the complete tumor as well as the normal tissues around the tumor. Normal tissues are treated to minimize the recurrence of cancer cells spread out to the normal tissues. It will also help in monitoring the body movement from breathing and movement of the organs in the body.

Types of Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy can be done through different ways. The three types of radiation therapies are:

External Beam Therapy

This is the most common form of radiation therapy. It is delivered to the patient in the form of photon beams. The patients are usually given external beam therapy over a course of many weeks on a daily basis. The total amount of sessions to be given depends on various factors which include dose of radiation to be given as well. There are different methods of external beam radiation therapy. These methods are 3 dimensional conformal radiation therapy, intensity modulated radiation therapy, image guided radiation therapy, tomotherapy, stereotactic therapy and proton therapy. These different methods can be discussed by the patient with the doctors in order to find the one appropriate for their type of cancer.

Internal Radiation Therapy

Also known as brachytherapy, this works by placing radioactive materials inside the body. Various types of brachytherapy methods can be used in the treatment of cancer. This can be given to the patient in both a low dose rate and a high dose rate treatment. In low dose treatments, cancer cells receive continuous radiation in low doses for a period of many days. In a high dose treatment on the other hand, treatment can done in one or more treatment sessions. The placement of this therapy’s sources can either be temporary or permanent.

Brachytherapy can be used by the doctors alone as a treatment or even in addition to external beam therapy. This will provide a boost of radiation to the tumor.

Systematic Radiation Therapy

In this radiation therapy, the patient is basically given an injection which contains a radioactive substance. The substance could radioactive iodine or some other substance which is bound to a monoclonal antibody. There are many systematic radiation therapy drugs that are still being tested and are under clinical trials. These drugs are for several different cancer types.

Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

The therapy basically works by destroying the cells which are dividing rapidly and may cause some side effects. The therapy acts on the cells on patient’s body which divide fast naturally [4].

Everybody doesn’t experience the side effects of therapy. Sometimes the side effects of radiation therapy will disappear from the patient after the treatment has been completed. Some side effects however might return back to him after a few months or years. This may happen because the patient might have been affected in other parts and tissues of the body due to the therapy. Treatments for the side effects are also available and doctor should be consulted for them.

The side effects of radiation therapy include:

  • Fatigue and tiredness
  • The patient may lose his appetite and doesn’t feel like taking his meals. This may cause weakness and tiredness.
  • The patient might feel extreme nausea and experience vomiting.
  • The patient might experience changes in skin color and texture. They may face numerous skin related problems including dryness of skin, reddening of the skin, itching, and blisters on the skin, flaking, tanning and even ulceration.
  • Skin will get very sensitive to sunlight. Strong soaps, chemicals and dyes may make the problems worse. The symptoms will get worsened if the patient washes skin abrasively. The patient will be required to discuss these skin care issues with his doctor. Everyone’s symptoms and problems will vary and the doctors recommend the best care suitable to their personal case. The patient might be recommended special and medicated gels, creams and dressings.
  • The patient might suffer from hair loss. The problem of hair loss is medically known as alopecia. The problem may affect patient’s body parts that were treated. Other parts where hair may disappear from include the head, face, armpits and pubic areas.
  • Patients might suffer from problems in the mouth. They could possibly experience very dry mouth and face difficulty in chewing their food or swallowing it. They might suffer from dental decay and dental problems. In order to prevent long term and serious medical problems, the patient should consult a dentist prior to their radiation therapy.
  • Chest problems may also occur in the patient treated with radiation therapy. These include coughing, severe pain while swallowing the food and often shortness of breath.
  • The patient might also experience abdominal issues. This includes diarrhea or sometimes severe constipation. The patient might feel a burning sensation while they urinate. Moreover, the need for urinating may also increase and felt more often.
  • Women may experience discomfort and dryness in their vaginal areas. Some women may be affected with menopause and their ovaries might cease to work after the treatment.
  • Patients may become incapable of performing sexual intercourse.

Coping up with Radiation Therapy

Cancer is a frightful diseases and fighting it is a hard battle. Support of friends and family is extremely important for the patient as this time. The disease and the treatments may cause them emotional trauma and lead them into depression and anxiety problems. They should be counseled by professional counselors which would help them reduce their stress. Support groups can also be a way to help the patient get distracted and feel better.

Patients should have regular tests after the therapy as well to ensure that they are not going to develop the disease again. They will assess the patient’s recovery and make sure that developments are all positive. Special care should be given to their needs and help them get through the side effects they might face after the therapy. In order to avoid skin problems, they shouldn’t go out in the sun and use medicated gels and creams. Before using any new type of oil or lotion, doctor’s approval should be taken. Even though radiation therapy is very stressful, it’s worth the fight. Patients need to have a very positive attitude despite the situation and be motivated towards getting healthy again. Giving up hope and being negative will only worsen the disease.



[1] http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/radiationtherapy.html

[2] http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/radiation-therapy/basics/why-its-done/prc-20014327

[3] http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/treatment/types/radiation-therapy/radiation-fact-sheet

[4] http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Cancer_treatments_radiotherapy