Radiation therapy uses high doses of radiation energy to destroy or damage cancer cells. It is sometimes called radiotherapy, X-ray therapy or irradiation. Radiation therapy is a common treatment for many types of cancer. See general information below, or go to the UC San Diego Cancer Center's Department of Radiation Oncology website.
Definition of treatment
Radiation breaks down a piece of the DNA molecule inside of a cancer cell that keeps the cell from growing, dividing and spreading. Although surrounding normal cells may be affected by radiation, most of them recover and resume their regular functions. Unlike chemotherapy, which exposes the entire body to cancer-fighting drugs, radiation therapy is a localized treatment.
Types of radiation treatment
The treatment each patient receives depends not only on cancer type and location, but other factors such as how deep the radiation must travel into the body, the patient's general health and medical history, and other types of cancer treatments that might be needed.
There are two types of radiation treatments.
- External beam radiation uses a special machine to aim a high dose of radiation directly at the cancer cells and a small portion of healthy tissue at the margins of the tumor. In exernal beam radiation, the machine circles around the body, sending radiation from many directions to the exact part of your body that needs it. External beam radiation usually involves 15 minute treatments, done once a day, five days a week, for about six to eight weeks.
- Internal radiation (brachytherapy) involves radioactive material that is implanted inside the body at the tumor site. Radiation implants are small "seeds" or "pellets" filled with different types of radioactive material. Sometimes this type of treatment is called "seed implants." These seeds, which are about the size of a grain of rice, are inserted through thin needles and emit radiation to kill the cancer cells without harming nearby normal tissue. Brachytherapy is usually done on an outpatient basis, without a hospital stay.
UC San Diego Health System expertise
UC San Diego Health System offers a wide range of state-of-the-art radiation therapy treatment approaches, using the Varian Trilogy Stereotactic system – the latest and most sophisticated technology available in radiotherapy.
- Stereotactic Radiosurgery (SRS)
- Image Guided Radiation Therapy (IGRT)
- Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT)
- RapidArc Technology
Is radiation therapy painful?
Not usually, but if you feel uncomfortable during the procedure, tell the radiation therapist.
What are the side effects of radiation therapy?
- Nausea, diarrhea
- Red, itching and peeling skin in the treatment area
- Loss of appetite
- Hair loss at the treatment site
Side effects often go away over time. If they do not, your doctor may recommend a break or change in your treatment.
Will radiation therapy make me radioactive?
This depends on the type of radiation you receive. External radiation therapy will not make you radioactive. If you are having internal radiation therapy, even though the radiation is contained at the tumor site, the seeds are active. If you are having prostate brachytherapy, your doctor may advise you to stay away from pregnant women and children, as well as wear a condom if you are sexually active.
Who gives radiation therapy?
Although the radiation therapist is the person who gives the radiation treatment, a team of other professionals will be involved in your radiation therapy.
- Radiation oncologist: The doctor who specializes in using radiation to treat cancer and develops a radiation treatment plan
- Dosimetrist: Assists the radiation oncologist with the treatment plan and determines dosage
- Radiation physicist: Works the equipment to ensure that the right amount of radiation goes to the targeted spot
- Radiation therapy nurse: Specializes in cancer treatment and provides information about radiation treatment and side effects
What is treatment simulation?
If you are having external radiation, you will go through a process called simulation to determine exactly where to aim the radiation. The simulation takes one to three hours. The radiation therapist will position you on the table and take X-rays, CT scans and other images to confirm the treatment area, called the port or field. Once the images are approved, the radiation therapist will mark reference points on your skin with a permanent marker. Body molds and shields are often made to keep you from moving and to protect parts of your body.