Radiation Therapy

What Is Radiation Therapy?

A male doctor talks with a senior female patient before a radiation therapy procedure.Radiation therapy is a common type of cancer treatment that may be prescribed on its own, but is often used in conjunction with surgery and/or chemotherapy. Radiation therapy uses beams of extremely strong energy to kill cancer cells. X-rays are an example of this type of radiation, but X-rays use much lower doses of energy. Unlike chemotherapy, which is a treatment that affects the entire body, radiation therapy specifically targets the tumor.

For some patients, radiation may be used to reduce the size of a tumor prior to surgery; this is called neoadjuvant therapy. Adjuvant therapy, on the other hand, involves using radiation after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells.

Types of Radiation Therapy

The radiation therapy given will depend on the type of cancer you have, where it is located, and whether it has metastasized. The number of treatments you require will depend on several factors, though most patients undergo radiation about 5 times a week for 1 to 10 weeks. Radiation therapy can take several forms:

  • External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) – EBRT is the most common form of radiation therapy; a machine outside of the body sends high-energy beams directly to the tumor. It is a painless process, similar to having an X-ray done.

  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) – IMRT is an advanced form of 3-D radiation therapy that conforms to the precise shape of the tumor by using small beams of varying intensities; this highly targeted approach reduces the risk of damage to health tissues near the tumor.

  • Internal radiation therapy – also called brachytherapy, this type of radiation therapy involves an implant in the body (usually right next to the tumor) that delivers beams to the tumor. The implants are inserted into the body through needle-like tubes. Eventually, the implants stop giving radiation and they can either be left in the body or taken out.

Risks of Radiation Therapy

Potential acute (short-term) side effects of radiation therapy include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Skin changes
  • Hair loss (when radiation is applied to the head)

Long-term side effects may include:

  • Cataracts
  • Infertility
  • Memory loss
  • Osteoporosis
  • Lung disease
  • Intestinal problems

There is some risk that radiation may cause a second cancer to develop in a different area of the body years after treatment. However, The U.S. National Cancer Institute estimates that only about 8 percent of patients who undergo radiation develop this long-term side effect.

To learn more about radiation treatment and how you can have an informed discussion with your doctor about this therapy, review the American Cancer Society’s guide on radiation therapy.

Learn More About Radiation Therapy at BayCare

BayCare offers state-of-the-art radiation therapy services throughout the Tampa Bay area so that individuals diagnosed with cancer can get the best care possible. Call (855) 314-8346 for more information or find a doctor near you. Find out more about radiation therapy at any of the following locations: