Radiation oncology emerged during the 20th Century from an experimental application of basic X-rays to a specialized high-tech discipline delivering sophisticated cancer therapy treatments. Today, nearly 60 percent of cancer patients receive radiation therapy (also called radio-therapy). This article provides a basic overview of radiation therapy, including the various radiation types and how to find trusted radiation oncology care.
What is Radiation Therapy?
Radiation therapy applies high levels of radiation (an emission of energy as electromagnetic waves or moving subatomic particles, especially high-energy particles, which cause ionization) to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing and dividing while minimizing damage unaffected cells. Via radiation, cell damage occurs immediately – the targeted cancer cells will be expected to die over a period of days, weeks, and months and will then be eliminated by the body. Usually, healthy cells in the radiation treatment field are able to recover.
Professionals involved in the care of patients receiving radiation therapy include radiation oncologists, cancer nurses specializing in radiation, physicists, radiation therapists, dosimetrists, clinical trial specialists, social workers, dietitians, care coordinators, and spiritual advisors. The total radiation dose is broken up over a number of treatments, rather than all at once, giving normal cells a chance to recover. Each dose that’s delivered is termed a fraction. Among other criteria, the total number of fractions administered depends on:
- Tumor size
- Tumor location
- Cancer type
- Reason for treatment
- Patient’s overall health
- Other treatments the patient is receiving
Cancer Radiation Treatment Types
As previously mentioned, radiation therapy is delivered in many different ways depending upon the type of cancer and the stage of treatment. The following are the types of radiation treatment we at Central Alabama Radiation Oncology provide:
External Beam Radiation Therapy (EBRT)
EBRT uses linear accelerator machines to beam radiation that delivers a dosage deep into the area of the body affected by cancer. There are multiple methods of applying EBRT”
- Three-Dimensional Conformal Radiation Therapy (3D-CRT)
3D-CRT is a method for delivering EBRT more precisely via the use of a special CT scan and computerized model. 3D-CRT aims to reduce damage to tissues near the cancer site. 3D-CRT is being tested to determine if higher doses can be given safely with higher outcomes.
- Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT)
IMRT allows radiation oncologists to customize the amount of radiation administered to different parts of the area being treated. It is an advanced form of 3D conformal radiation therapy. Computer controlled moveable “leaves” adjust the radiation intensity so that more radiation can be delivered to the tumor while normal cells nearby receive less.
- Stereotactic Radiosurgery (SRS) / Stereotactic Body Radiotherapy (SBRT) / Stereotactic Ablative Body Radiotherapy (SABR)
SRS/SBRT/SABR is delivered on an outpatient basis and delivers a high dose of radiation to a highly-defined target. It is a non-invasive procedure used for treatment of brain tumors, arteriovenous malformation early stage lung cancer, solitary metastatic disease, pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, and prostate cancer.
Brachytherapy is internal radiation, sometimes referred to as “seeds” or “implants.” In brachytherapy, radioactive material is placed directly into or near the cancer. Brachytherapy may be used alone or along with external beam radiation therapy. Brachytherapy has been effective in the treatment of several types of cancer such as prostate, cervix, uterus, vagina, head and neck, and breast. CARO commonly performs breast, uterine, and cervix brachytherapy.
Image-guided Radiation Therapy (IGRT)
IGRT involves imaging during the course of treatment allowing more accurate delivery of radiation. Images taken during the planning phase of treatment are compared to images taken during treatment. Sometimes the location of the cancer may shift in a patient’s body due to patient position (weight loss, etc.) and this treatment allows better accuracy of the radiation delivery. IGRT is often used along with EBRT, 3D-CRT, or IMRT.
Patient Care During Radiation
CARO Radiation Oncologists and the therapy team continuously evaluate our patients throughout their course of therapy.
Radiation can cause skin irritation resembling a sunburn. The skin may redden or darken and blisters may develop. We recommend the use of skin-care products that hydrate the entire treatment area, but also suggest avoiding the application of them within two hours before treatment. Hydrogel pads also are effective in reducing heat and improving comfort.
If more severe skin irritation occurs, the radiation oncologist might order prescription medication. We advise patients who experience more intense skin irritation they should be seen by a radiation-care nurse daily or weekly after treatment ends to monitor skin healing and the skin regimen.
Know that radiation to the head may cause hair loss and irritate the tops of the ears. Applying mineral oil to the affected areas reduces irritation.
Nutrition and Hydration
Patients undergoing radiation might experience weight loss and/or dehydration. It might be appropriate to consult a registered dietician in-tandem with treatment. A dehydrated patient may require IV fluids. Always be sure to report to your healthcare provider any dehydration signs and symptoms, such as weakness, dizziness, and decreased urine output.
Patients need guidance, education, and support to navigate the healthcare system and the cancer-care continuum. Do not be afraid to ask for further education, encouragement, problem-solving help, and resource assistance. At CARO, we provide a number of resources for patients at time of consult, during, and after treatment, in addition to providing a cancer survivorship plan. We take the necessary steps to ensure that each patient receive unique and accurate care. For example, we provide each patient with a customized individual treatment plan. The plan is unique to each patient depending on the size and location of their cancer.
After the treatment plan is determined, a treatment simulation is carried out and prior to actual treatment, several steps occur behind the scenes at CARO without the patient present. The simulation x-ray may be used to design special lead alloy blocks that are used to minimize the amount of radiation delivered to normal tissues, while maximizing the dose to the cancer site. Sophisticated computer software performs calculations to help ensure the proper radiation dose will be delivered. It may take several days for treatment planning to be completed. We ensure that each treatment plan is completely vetted before it is carried out.
You don’t have to travel away from home to receive the highest quality care and emerging treatments. Our facility houses the most advanced technology of its kind in Alabama, and our team approach to your treatment begins with a care plan that is custom tailored to your needs and diagnosis. Physicians, nurses, technicians and administrative staff are all dedicated to working together to achieve your goals. Click here to contact us and learn more.