Types of Radiation Therapy

Radiation treatment continues to grow and change in order to improve the health and quality of life to cancer patients all around the world. With radiation therapy, high-energy particles or waves of energy are used to treat cancer by breaking up the DNA of cancer cells in a way that destroys their growth and division. Radiation can kill cancer cells or can decrease the rate at which cancer will spread. 

Goals of Radiation Therapy

A doctor may recommend radiation as a treatment option at different stages of a cancer diagnosis. When cancer is found in earlier stages, radiation therapy can help decrease the size of a tumor before a scheduled surgery or be used after surgery to kill any remaining cancerous cells. Radiation therapy can also be used in later stages of cancer and can be used as a solution for pain relief, or part of palliative care. When speaking of types of radiation therapy available, there are two main forms used for treatments both external and internal. Doctors will sometime prescribe radiation therapy to be combined with other cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, surgery, and others.

External Radiation Therapy

The most common type of radiation treatment involves an external source of equipment that delivers radiation from outside a patient’s body that is aimed at a targeted cancer site. Equipment used in external beam therapy include systems such as proton and neutron beam machines, orthovoltage x-ray, Cobalt-60 machines, and linear accelerators. The team of radiation oncologists will determine which method and system are best for treatment, depending on the location of cancer within the body. These systems can be used for patients who have several tumors of the head, neck, breast, lung, colon, and prostate. There are two levels of radiation when external radiation therapy is performed depending on the location of the tumor, low-energy and high-energy radiation. Low-energy radiation may be a better choice in treating surface tumors like skin cancer since it will not penetrate very deep into the body. High-energy radiation is used when patients require deeper penetration to reach cancerous cells hidden in the patient’s body.    

Internal Radiation Therapy

There are a few different types of internal radiation therapy available. One method is called Brachytherapy, which is described as placing radiation sources as close to the tumor site as possible. In some instances, it can be inserted directly inside the tumor. The implant may be temporary or permanent and is used in many cancers such as ones found in the cervix, uterus, vagina, rectum, eye, and in certain parts of the head and neck. Brachytherapy is separated into categories by the method in which radiation is placed on the body.

  • Interstitial Brachytherapy – involves placing radioactive needles or wires in the tumor area for a selected length of time, whether a day, a week or can remain in the patient’s body permanently.   
  • Intracavitary Brachytherapy – the placement of a metal or plastic radioactive source that is inserted into body cavities such as the vagina, uterus, or larynx to irradiate the cancerous walls within the cavity or the tissues nearby.
  • Intraluminal Radiation Therapy – delivers radiation to hollow organs. A surgeon or a radiation oncologist performs this method by inserting a specially designed tube in an opening such as the esophagus for cancer treatment.
  • Radioactively Tagged Molecules – radioactive particles are attached to small molecules and delivered intravenously.

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