Characteristics and Uses of Radiation Therapy

01 October, 2020
Radiation therapy is now more accurate and has fewer negative consequences than it did when doctors started using it. This treatment seeks to destroy cancer cells by applying intense radiation to them.

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment based on the use of ionizing radiation, be it in the form of gamma rays, protons, or alpha particles. This technique uses high frequency to kill cancer cells.

The National Cancer Institute defines it as a treatment that uses high doses of radiation in order to destroy and shrink tumors. It’s a local procedure as the objective is to kill cancer cells wherever they may be.

This treatment has been around for a century. However, many advances in physics, oncology, and IT have considerably improved this specialty. They reflect in a technological improvement of the equipment when it comes to quality and precision.

How does radiation therapy work?

Radiation therapy consists of using intense energy to damage the DNA of cancer cells, producing small breaks inside. Thus, they can no longer divide and grow.

This technique is effective because it directly targets cancer cells. These cells reproduce more quickly than normal ones and cannot repair radiation damage when done efficiently. While nearby normal cells also suffer from radiation therapy, these can heal between sessions.

This process takes days or weeks since there’s no cell death in a single application. Once there’s no reproductive capacity of cancer cells, the body can naturally get rid of them. Thus, they break down and the body discards them.

A woman undergoing an MRI.
The purpose of radiation therapy is to kill cancer cells.

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Who applies this treatment?

Several medical professionals are involved during radiotherapy treatment. Typically, the staff includes a:

  • Radiation oncologist. This is the doctor in charge of supervising all radiation treatment for cancer, as they’re trained to administer it properly.
  • Radiophysicist. This is a physicist specialized in radiation. Their role is to ensure that the equipment that emits the rays is working properly and that it delivers a proper dose of radiation.
  • Dosimetrist technician. This person helps the doctor and the radiophysicist with the planning of treatment.
  • Radio technician. This is the person in charge of operating the radiation equipment and giving instructions to the patient.
  • Radiation therapist nurse. This person has special training in radiation therapy and can assist a patient and provide information.

Note that the treatment varies according to the type of radiotherapy. The most used types of radiotherapy are:

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Side effects of radiation therapy

Radiation therapy can damage some healthy cells near the cancer cells. It can lead to some side effects in them in spite of their ability to recover. These effects vary from person to person but the most frequent are:

  • Skin problems such as dryness, itching, or peeling, as well as the formation of blisters (they tend to disappear after a few weeks).
  • The feeling of constant tiredness.

Side effects depend on the location in which a person received the radiation:

  • Receiving radiation in the head and neck can cause dryness, sores in the mouth, and gums. Also, difficulty swallowing, stiff jaws, nausea, cavities, or a type of swelling called lymphedema.
  • When done in the chest it may cause difficulty breathing or swallowing, breast or nipple pain, stiff shoulders, coughing, fever, and chest pain. This is also referred to as radiation pneumonitis and radiation fibrosis.
  • When the radiation takes place in the stomach and abdomen it could lead to nausea and vomiting, or diarrhea.
  • Lastly, radiation in the pelvis can lead to diarrhea, rectal bleeding, incontinence, bladder irritation, erectile dysfunction, and lower sperm count in the case of men; in women, menstrual alterations and early menopausal symptoms.
A person undergoing a test.
Adverse effects are common when normal cells get radiation.

General recommendations to undergo this treatment

You should ask your doctor how they’ll carry out the procedure and what the possible side effects may be before beginning radiation therapy. They’ll probably recommend a special diet with which to cope with discomforts such as nausea or trouble eating.

The body spends a lot of energy trying to heal during treatment. Thus, diets rich in protein and calories are recommended in order to maintain the adequate weight of a patient. As you can see, a well-balanced nutritional plan will help them cope with burnout.

The skin must receive special attention, as it’s the first organ to receive radiation. The use of lotions and other skin products isn’t recommended without first consulting the supervising doctor. Finally, it’s advisable to wear loose garments, without elastics that can rub the area where a person received the radiation — mainly to prevent sores or flaking.

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