By Emily Grade, MD, a radiation oncologist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center
Question: What is radiation therapy and is it always needed?
Answer: Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses high-energy X-ray therapy created using a machine called a linear accelerator. This sophisticated piece of equipment can produce X-ray beams that match the exact size and shape of a tumor, including those that are very large or very small. In addition, adjusting energy levels to manage the depth of X-ray penetration and sending beams from multiple directions, including front to back and side to side, ensures effective and targeted treatments that work to spare nearby healthy tissues and organs.
More than 50 percent of all cancer patients receive radiation therapy at some point in their treatment process. It may be used preoperatively to shrink a tumor before it is surgically removed, after surgery to kill remaining microscopic cancer cells, or without surgery as a singular treatment approach for certain cancers. Radiation therapy may also be used in palliative care to relieve painful symptoms associated with advanced cancers.
The dose, angle and duration of radiation therapy are based on a standard of care that has been established by researchers and physicians after thorough safety and efficacy evaluations over many years. These standards are continuously reviewed and modified.
While fatigue is a common side effect of radiation therapy, other side effects usually center on the area being treated. For instance, treatment of the bowel area may lead to bowel symptoms such as diarrhea, whereas treatment involving the head and neck might produce changes in taste, dry mouth or, in some cases, patches of hair loss.
While radiation therapy is most commonly delivered via a linear accelerator, there are other treatment techniques, including proton therapy and brachytherapy, which entails placing radioactive material inside the body to treat certain types of cancer.
Radiation therapy, including the approach, dose and length of treatment, varies based on the type, size and stage of cancer, overall health status and other factors. Speak with your physician about what, if any, role radiation therapy will play in your cancer treatment plan.