Many patients and caregivers have questions regarding radiation therapy. It is understandable. Radiotherapy is not commonly known about. After all, it often gets mistaken for Radiology. So we will quickly answer a couple of the most common questions about radiation treatment.
First, let’s go over a little about radiation. Radiotherapy uses radiation that is ionizing. This means it has enough energy to strip electrons of atoms. This is in no way similar to the radiation from your cell phones or other electrical devices, as they do not have enough energy to do this.
Ionising radiation is used as it has enough energy to break the strands of DNA inside cancer cells. This leads to the cancer cells dieing. If the radiation is successful in killing all the cancer cells the cancer will be cured.
In the process of targeting cancer cells, normal healthy tissue also received radiation. These normal healthy cells will die as well. The killing of normal healthy cells is what normally leads to side effects of radiotherapy. It also limits the amount of radiation that can be delivered to the cancer cells. So it is a trade off between giving the cancer as much dose as possible, and exposing healthy tissue to radiation as well.
What is radiation therapy? When is it used?
Radiation therapy, also known as Radiotherapy, is one of the most common treatments for cancer. It use high-energy particles or waves, such as x-rays, gamma rays, electron beams, or protons, to destroy or damage cancer cells.
Radiotherapy can be given alone or alongside other conventional treatments such as chemotherapy and surgery. Other drugs can also be used with radiotherapy known as radiosensitizers. These drugs make cancer cells more sensitive to the radiation being used, and kill the cells more easily.
Radiation therapy can be given to a patient in several different ways. Patients also receive different amount of radiation for different cancers depending on the stage and extent of the cancer, as well as the patient’s ability to deal with possible side effects.
Why do I need Radiotherapy after surgery? Wasn’t the surgery successful?
Radiotherapy after surgery is common. Although the cancer mass has been removed there is always a chance that surgery has left microscopic cells that the surgeon cannot see. Radiotherapy makes sure that no cancer cells are left behind.
During surgery, a the surgeon will try to remove all of the cancer visible, which often includes the tumor, lymph nodes, and some surrounding tissue as well. There is always a chance that individual cancer cells that are microscopic – so too small for the doctor to see – could have been left behind. Leaving just one cell behind can cause the cancer to return later
Radiation therapy can be used to treat the area where surgery took place and lower the chances that cancer returns. Many patients will have external beam radiation, which is aimed from outside the body to the target area. There are other types and uses of radiation to control cancer. The options you have will depend on your cancer.
Everyone knows that Radiation can be dangerous. So how can you use it to treat cancer?
The dangers of radiation is often exaggerated by the media and other sources. This is understandable as not many people know enough about it. Radiation is dangerous thought- but mostly only ionising high energy radiation is dangerous. The radiation released by everyday objects such as mobile phones and microwaves is practically harmless.
It is all based on benefits outweighing the risks. Radiation is not always always helpful in all types of cancer. There is a lifetime maximum dose that any one part of the body can receive before the side effects outweigh the potential benefits of radiation.
Importantly, Radiologists now use new and advanced techniques to get images of the specific area that needs to get treatment, allowing them to better control the exact amount of radiation that will pass into the healthy tissue. This helps make radiation more accurate and lessens side effects.
In general, side effects that do happen will affect the part of the body where radiation is aimed. And not any area further from the treatment site.
What are risks that radiation therapy for one type of cancer will cause another cancer?
There is a secondary cancer concern when it comes to radiation therapy. When some patients are facing radiation treatment for cancer, they may have fears about the possibility of the radiation causing a new second cancer in the future.
A second cancer is a cancer that is different from the original type of cancer that was treated. The odds of a second cancer depend on many factors such as age during treatment, radiation dose, and the part of the body that was previously treated. The small risk of a secondary cancer that could occur more than 10 to 15 years later must be weighed against the benefit of controlling the current cancer.
Is there a reason that I am left alone to get the radiation? What are the risks to my family because I have daily radiation treatments?
Having radiation therapy treatment can be unsettling. You are positioned on a machine inside a special room. Once you have been set up correctly and your treatment is about to begin, all the staff vacate the room. And you are left alone for the duration of your treatment.
This is because you are receiving one series of treatment, but the staff are there all day for everyone’s treatment. If they were in the room for your treatment they could possibly receive as much as 40 sessions of treatment a day.
This means the staff are not allowed to be in the room with you for your treatment. They will be right outside monitoring your progress using cameras and audio equipment.
Once your treatment is over you do not need to worry about radiation anymore, the machine has stopped. You can go about your normal life and not risk your family or friends being exposed to radiation. Radiotherapy does not make you radioactive in any way. There are other types of radiotherapy such as internal and systemic forms of radiation in which case you may need to take certain precautions to protect your family and friends.
Remember that you can always ask your radiologist about this and anything else during radiotherapy. They will be happy to explain it to you!