What is Radiation Therapy?
Radiation therapy (radiotherapy) is treatment of cancer and some non-cancerous diseases with ionizing radiation. Such radiation is produced by means of special devices in which a radioactive source is used. The effect of radiation therapy is based on the increased sensitivity of cancer cells to ionizing radiation. Under the effect of this radiation in the cells a huge number of mutations are developed, and they die. Normal cells do not suffer from these changes as they are more resistant to radiation. The collapse of the tumor also occurs due to the special technique of radiation, when the rays affect the tumor from different angles. As a result, the abnormal area comprises of the maximal dose.
Why is radiation therapy important?
Radiation therapy is one of the three major treatments for cancer. Along with medication and surgery, radiation therapy allows achieve complete recovery, for example lymphogranulomatosis. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy are used after surgery in order to improve the results. For example, breast cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer, and others. In some cases radiation therapy relieves the patient from painful symptoms. For example, in the case of cancer metastases in the bone pain is relieved. Radiation therapy is used to treat non-neoplastic diseases. For example, it was used as a method of epilation and treatment of excessive sweating. Today, this type of treatment is often used for the treatment of heel spurs.
How does radiation therapy work?
Ionizing radiation is not safe for healthy tissues, so radiation therapy is carried out in several sessions. If necessary, radiation from several angles is carried out, so healthy tissues obtain the minimal dose.
Radiation therapy always starts with planning. To do so, a series of X-ray examinations is carried out, which determines the exact location of the tumor. With this technique ionizing radiation is directed right at the tumor.
During the session, the patient does not feel pain or any other discomfort. The radiation takes place in a specially equipped room. The nurse helps a patient to take a position that was chosen during planning. Special blocks protect healthy organs and tissues from radiation. After, session begins, which lasts from 1 to 5 minutes. The doctor watches the procedure in another room.
What are the types of radiation therapy for breast cancer?
Depending on terms and purposes, radiation therapy for breast cancer is divided into the following types:
- Preoperative radiation therapy. The main purpose is to kill cancer cells, which are located in the periphery and can be a cause of relapses. It is also used to improve ablation and make an inoperable form operable.
- Postoperative radiation therapy is suggested to kill any remaining cancer cells after surgery, and also to influence on the regional lymph nodes
- Intraoperative radiation therapy is used for organ-conserving surgery.
Radiation is carried out in two possible ways:
- external radiation therapy is the most common type of radiotherapy. Radiation is carried out in a hospital with a stationary X-ray machine. Typically, 30-40 sessions are necessary 5 times per week for 4-6 weeks.
- internal radiation therapy (the synonym is brachytherapy) involves placing radioactive material into the cancer itself or into the tissue surrounding it. These radioactive implants may be permanent or temporary and may require a hospital stay. An internal radiation therapy session lasts 5-6 minutes or few days.
Indications for radiotherapy for breast cancer are:
- Involvement of peripheral lymph nodes in the neoplastic process (more than 4);
- Extensive local spread of the tumor without its collapse (edematous form of cancer), as well as extensive axillary and supraclavicular lymph nodes with accumulation of large neurovascular bundles;
- Optional conserving surgery.
It is mportant to know: in addition, in order to relieve pain while any painkillers are not effective the radiation of bones may be carried out when cancer cells affect the spine and pelvis.
Radiation therapy: Potential Side Effects
Usually older patients are afraid of side effects of radiation therapy. Such classical consequences of radiation therapy – as nausea or hair loss – are absent, because the dose of ionizing radiation is very small, and acute radiation sickness does not develop.
However, it is important to be aware of the side effects: in the middle of radiation therapy many patients experience fatigue which becomes acute by the end of therapy, but it usually goes away within 1-2 months. Many patients suffer from short-term bouts of dull ache in the irradiated breast. Typically, the treatment of this condition is not required.
You may experience skin problems, such as dryness, scaling, itching, and redness. In order to prevent and treat these skin problems ointment, Panthenol spray, creams and lotions for child’s skin are used. It is desirable to stop using lotions and deodorants which contain alcohol. Tight clothing and tight bras will lead to skin problems as well, so it is desirable for the entire period of treatment to wear comfortable and loose clothing made of natural fabrics (primarily, cotton).
Is radiation therapy dangerous?
Radiation therapy, especially when combined with chemotherapy, often leads to neutropenia – low white blood cells level – the protective blood cells. Typically, radiation therapy doesn’t cause secondary tumors. Usually these tumors occur after radiation therapy in 10-20 years. Typically, the secondary tumors appear after radiation therapy in high doses. In general, radiation therapy does not lead to lethal complications.