Radiation Therapy: Know the Basics

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When you or a loved one faces a cancer diagnosis, life suddenly takes a different course. Days that were once filled with normal routines may turn into weeks and months of doctor appointments, treatment plans, struggles, and at times, overwhelming feelings of all kinds.

This is something that we understand very well, and want to empower and support you with everything possible to overcome your cancer journey to achieve whole health. And one of the ways we do this is explaining what might be ahead, so you are prepared for whatever twist and turn may come to pass, like radiation therapy, for example.

Being a part of many patients' cancer journey, radiation therapy is something that you may have heard about, but you may be surprised to learn that there's quite a bit to it. Whether understanding more about radiation therapy helps you or someone you care about, we're here to explain some of the basics.

What Radiation Therapy Does

Radiation therapy is one type of treatment for cancer that uses X-rays, gamma rays and charged particles to target cancerous cells. These rays shrink and kill cancer cells while trying to avoid surrounding normal cells. Depending on the goals of treatment, radiation therapy can relieve symptoms, control the disease or cure the cancer.

It can be one form of treatment among others (like chemotherapy, surgery and immunotherapy) and involve different types of doctors, such as a radiation oncologist and radiologist. Because radiation therapy is often used in combination with other treatments, it's important to have a coordinated cancer treatment team that can ensure all treatments are working in harmony for the best possible outcomes.

Types of Radiation Therapy

There are two types of radiation therapy. A doctor might recommend one or the other depending on the type and location of the cancer, and a patient's individual health. Radiation therapy also might be administered differently to maximize the effectiveness of the treatment.

Here are the types of radiation therapy:

  • External Radiation Therapy: This common cancer treatment uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Like getting an X-ray, you must lie still while a machine directs radiation to the cancer site. This type of treatment is often given once a day for five consecutive days, and then repeated for two to nine weeks. It is part of the treatment plan for many types of cancer.
  • Internal Radiation Therapy (Brachytherapy): This type of radiation is implanted into the body, and allows the radiation oncologist to direct the radiation to a smaller area in a shorter timeframe compared to external radiation. The radiation material is sealed inside small implants that are inserted into the body using a catheter. It is used to treat many types of cancer, including head and neck, breast, cervix, prostate and eye.

The Effectiveness of Radiation Therapy

Radiation was first used in the 1890's to treat cancer, and there is a body of research and evidence yielding refinements and innovations. Today, radiation treatment is safer and more precise than ever, limiting effects on surrounding healthy tissue. For many types of malignant tumors and other related conditions, radiation therapy is one of the most effective treatments for reducing symptoms, controlling growth and curing the condition.

Still have questions about radiation therapy or your cancer journey? Our experts are here to help. Visit our Cancer Care website to learn more.

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