[MOL] Radiation as Cancer Treatment...... [00165] Medicine On Line

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[MOL] Radiation as Cancer Treatment......

Radiation as Cancer Treatment
by: Michael Guthrie, R. Ph.

About half the people with cancer need or require radiation therapy as part of their overall treatment plan (Dollinger, 1997). There are three main reasons why radiation is employed. First, it is used to try and cure the cancer and this is usually a fairly long and complex course. Second, it is used for palliation (relieve the symptoms). Third, radiation is used adjunctively, usually after surgery, to prevent recurrence.

It is interesting that ionizing radiation is both a cause of cancer, and a treatment for cancer! To put this in perspective, ionizing radiation such as Radon, x-ray, and other sources is thought to contribute to less than 3 % of all cancers, partly due to the fact that radiation so effectively kills cells that mutated cells can’t go on to multiply.

The goal of radiation as cancer treatment is to destroy rapidly growing cells, such as cancer cells. Radiation is given either externally, or at a very short distance, even internally. Brachytherapy is a type of short distance radiation, but the term “brachytherapy” is often used universally to define this type of radiation.

There are a number of professionals who get involved when radiation is prescribed. The first is the radiation oncologist. This is the medical doctor who is in charge of the patient’s treatment plan, and who monitors for side effects and efficacy of the radiation. The medical physicist is in charge of maintaining and calibrating the complex equipment used to deliver the radiation. The radiation therapist is the one who actually administers the radiation per the radiation oncologist’s orders. Finally the dosimeterist calculates the doses of radiation at various points in the body.

Simulation is an important step in radiation therapy. In the simulation phase the patient actually goes to the radiation department and lies on under a machine called a simulator. The skin is marked for future positioning purposes and x-rays are taken. Photographs are often taken, and sometimes CT scans are performed. All of this is done to assure that the proper amount of radiation is applied to the exact location desired. After the simulation, there are meetings between the various team members mentioned above.

Radiation treatments usually last from 2 to 5 weeks. Each session only lasts a few minutes and is entirely painless. Usually radiation is given in numerous smaller doses rather than in few large bursts as this give normal cells more opportunity to recover.

Side effects of radiation can be bothersome and can include redness, dryness, itchiness, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and changes in blood counts. The actual type of side effect, and the severity is determined by where the radiation is applied, and how large the dose is. In almost all cases the side effects go away in a few weeks, but some patients may experience prolonged side effects.

Currently there are more focused and sophisticated forms of radiation being used and developed. Some, like the gamma knife, are being used in certain brain cancers with promising results. Fortunately these new devices are more focused, and have less side effects than more antiquated approaches.

Dollinger, Malin (1997). Everyone’s Guide to Cancer Therapy. Somerville House: Toronto
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