When you have been diagnosed with cancer, your doctor may recommend a type of treatment called radiation therapy. This involves the targeted use of high-dose radiation to eradicate cancer cells in the body without causing harm to surrounding tissues and organs.
Radiation therapy is performed under the supervision of radiation oncologists, who are highly trained experts in radiation. They have years of training and education related to using radiation to treat cancer.
Radiation may be used as a treatment option in several different ways:
- As a standalone treatment to eliminate cancer cells
- In coordination with other therapies, such as chemotherapy
- To shrink tumors and relieve symptoms when it’s not possible to fully destroy the cancer
More than half of people who have cancer will require some type of radiation therapy. For many common types of cancer, including breast cancer and prostate cancer, radiation procedures can be highly effective in eliminating cancer and reducing the risk of cancer recurrence.
Types of Radiation Treatment
There are two main types of radiation treatment:
- External beam radiation therapy
- Internal radiation therapy
Your doctor will recommend a specific type of radiotherapy based on your type of cancer, your health needs and the stage of your cancer.
Internal Radiation Therapy
When internal radiation therapy, also known as brachytherapy, is used, radioactive material is placed either directly in the cancerous tissue or around it.
These implants take on two different forms—they’re either permanent or temporary:
- With a permanent implant, small seeds the size of a grain of rice are implanted into the body. Over time, the implants lose their radioactivity, but the seeds remain within the body.
- For temporary internal radiation therapy, radiation therapy is delivered to the body through needles, catheters or other specialized applicators. This radiation remains in the body for between a few minutes and a few days.
External Beam Radiation Therapy
While internal radiation therapy is delivered to the cancer site internally, external beam radiation therapy delivers targeted radiation from outside the body.
Using a machine called a linear accelerator, the radiation oncologist creates the radiation beam, adjusts the size and shape using specialized software, and then delivers it to the body, targeting the tumor and not healthy tissue.
We use special technology called 3D Conformal Treatment Planning that visualizes and adjusts to match a patient’s unique anatomy, allowing for truly individualized therapy. Treatment can be targeted further as the tumor or cancerous tissue evolves and shrinks over time.
External beam radiation is typically given as an outpatient treatment five days a week, and many patients are able to continue most normal activities.
Accelerated Partial Breast Irradiation
At Altru, we use the Contura® Multi-Lumen Balloon system for accelerated partial breast irradiation. The Contura system allows us to protect skin, rib, lung and heart tissue more effectively. Accelerated partial breast irradiation is:
- Effective in treating patients with early-stage breast cancer
- Given on an outpatient basis and can be completed in five days
- Given after surgery and uses a small balloon catheter to deliver radiation inside the breast, where cancer is most likely to recur
- Effective in limiting the exposure of radiation to healthy tissue, reducing the potential for side effects
High-Dose Rate Brachytherapy
- Delivers radiation in the patient at or near the tumor site
- Can be used on almost any part of the body but is primarily used for prostate, breast, gynecologic, skin, sarcomas and other related areas.
- Can be used as either the sole treatment or in conjunction with external beam radiation
- Can deliver the treatment in just a few minutes, as opposed to the 24 to 120 hours of low-dose-rate brachytherapy
- Can be applied internally, in which radiation is remotely inserted by a computerized robotic system into previously implanted catheters, delivering highly focused radiation directly into the tumor and targeted regional tissues
Radixact System Featuring Synchrony
The Radixact System is a non-invasive treatment option developed to deliver image-guided intensity-modulated (IG-IMRT) radiation therapy, an extremely precise form of radiation therapy.
- The system provides continuous delivery of radiation from 360 degrees around the patient, which increases the control doctors have in getting radiation where it needs to be and helps to decrease the damage to surrounding healthy tissue and organs.
- The innovative new feature is the Synchrony tumor motion tracking system that can adjust for tumor motion and decrease the size of the radiation field for further precision and decreased side effects.
Selective Internal Radiation Therapy
- Is a radiation oncology treatment for patients with inoperable metastatic liver cancer, which spreads to other areas in the body.
- Introduces yttrium-90, an isotope used in radiation treatments, into the liver via a catheter. These treatments will introduce SIR-Spheres microspheres to your body, which irradiate the cancer cells, leading to the destruction of the tumor while the healthy liver tissue remains relatively unaffected
- Generally has fewer side effects than alternative treatments
- Is administered on an outpatient basis
Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy and Stereotactic Radiation Surgery
- Delivers very high doses of therapeutic radiation to isolated small tumors in the lung and liver
- Can decrease the number of treatments from 35 to five or less with similar or improved outcomes
At Altru, we use 4D-CT scanning equipment with respiratory motion management to accurately plan for tumors that move due to breathing.
Potential Side Effects of Radiation Therapy
While every effort is made to spare healthy tissue while using radiation therapy to treat cancer, some radiation side effects can occur.
Fatigue is one of the most common side effects of radiation. It can occur when you’re undergoing radiation therapy only, but it’s most common among patients who are having both radiation and chemotherapy.
Other side effects typically relate specifically to the part of the body that’s being treated. You may experience skin problems surrounding the area, including dryness, itching, blistering or peeling. These problems may worsen as treatment continues but typically improve within a few weeks of finishing treatment.
You may also experience other side effects related to the treatment area. If you’re undergoing treatment for breast cancer, for example, you might experience hair loss, swelling or tenderness in the chest.
What to Expect When Going Through Radiation
We know that beginning radiation therapy can be an emotional experience. That’s why our team is here to walk beside you every step of the way.
You will have a highly trained team that will work together to provide you care. Your team will include:
- A radiation oncologist
- Radiation oncology nurses
- A dosimetrist, who helps get the exact dose of radiation you need
- A radiation therapist, who operates the treatment machines
Before you begin your first radiation therapy session, you will meet with your radiation oncologist, who can explain what to expect. The first radiation therapy session is what’s known as a simulation, or a practice run of treatment without actually delivering radiation. You may also receive a small mark on the skin to identify where treatment should be targeted.
Remember that the team at Altru is here for you. If you have questions or concerns at any stage of the process, speak with your patient navigator or another member of your care team.
For more information about cancer treatment options at Altru, please call Altru Cancer Center at 701.780.5400.