A Guide to Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy is the use of radiation to treat cancer by damaging DNA within cancer cells preventing them from growing and duplicating and eventually leading to the death of the cell. It is a type of targeted treatment and only affects tissues in the area it is given, in comparison to chemotherapy which is considered an all-body cancer treatment.

The aim of radiotherapy can be to cure cancer by killing cancer cells, provide relief from cancer symptoms, and be used before or after another treatment such as chemotherapy or surgery to improve the effectiveness of treatment. Radiotherapy is most commonly used in the treatment of cancer but radiation can also be used in non-cancerous condition treatments such as macular degeneration and keloids.

Types of Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy can be delivered using different types of radiation including x-rays (photons), protons, gamma, and electrons. The use of protons to treat cancer is an advanced form of radiotherapy known as proton beam therapy and provides highly accurate targeting to reduce the severity of side effects experienced by patients. Although an effective treatment method, not every patient is suitable for receiving proton beam therapy and each referral depends on the health of the patient and the type, location and staging of the tumor.

Radiotherapy can be delivered in two ways;

Internal Radiotherapy uses radioactive sources known as seeds that are implanted near to or directly into the tumor to treat with less impact on surrounding healthy tissues. This is also called Brachytherapy. Implants can be left for a small number of minutes or a few days, although some implants are designed to stay in the body permanently.

External Beam Radiotherapy uses machines outside the body to deliver beams of radiation into the area to be treated. It only affects the cancerous tissues with some radiation impacting healthy cells, although healthy cells repair themselves quite soon after treatment has completed. The most common machine for delivering external beam radiotherapy is known as the LINAC machine or a linear accelerator.

The type of radiotherapy given is completely dependent on the individual being treated and even the same cancer types are treated with different methods of radiotherapy or a different combination of treatments.

How Is Radiotherapy Delivered?

Radiotherapy is delivered in an outpatient setting with appointments taking place daily Monday through to Friday with a break at the weekend to give the body a chance to recover. Individual sessions are commonly referred to as fractions and typically last between 15 to 45 minutes a session including the time for the patient to get comfortable on the treatment table and for the treatment to be delivered. After the treatment session, the patient can go back to their normal routine.

Treatments are painless, although some sensitivity isn’t uncommon and patients mention a redness of their skin in the area that has received treatment. It is also normal for hair loss to occur in the area to be treated but this will not affect any area of the body that does not receive treatment.

Side Effects of Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy treatment is carefully planned around the patient to ensure the fewest side effects as a result of treatment however some individuals do experience side effects during and after receiving radiotherapy. Side effects don’t always occur straight away but can happen a few hours or days after treatment has finished and on very rare occasions, some late-term side effects can occur months or years after completing radiotherapy treatment.

Fatigue and nausea are two of the most common side effects of radiotherapy but usually ease quickly and can be easily managed with support from the cancer care team. It’s important to maintain a healthy diet when receiving cancer treatment which can be difficult when suffering from nausea but anti-sickness drugs can help to reduce the severity.

Radiotherapy carries no risk of radioactivity after receiving treatment and it is safe for radiotherapy patients to be around others including children and pregnant women.

As medical technology advances, radiotherapy can be improved with more people able to access higher accuracy treatments that can be delivered in stronger doses for a shorter overall treatment plan.

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