How is radiation therapy used in oncology?

Dr Camille

First, let's simplify by answering the question "What is Radiation?" Radiation is all around us. It is generally shown as being on a spectrum, with the low energy area having common day things such as AM, FM radio, microwave, etc.,; the center has visible light (such as sunshine) and at the high energy end area there are x-rays and gamma rays.

The "Radiation" used in Radiation Therapy is at the high energy end of the spectrum - x-rays (External Beam Radiation therapy) and gamma rays (Internal Radiation/Brachytherapy). Simply put Radiation Therapy is used to destroy cancer cells.  Ever seen or had a Chest x-ray? That is the same form of Radiation used in "External Beam Radiation Therapy."  It is the same concept as when having a Chest X-ray (CXR) - nothing is seen or felt during treatment. However, instead of a small amount of energy to look at bones, the major difference is that the energy is multiplied many, many times over to "destroy cancer cells." Think of the energy in CXR as the engine in a "moped motor bike" (motor scooter) and that used for Radiation Therapy as one of the fastest cars known (Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche etc.,) These cars (Radiation therapy) are much more powerful and can do much (destroy cancer cells) more than a scooter (CXR - look at bones).

Radiation Therapy destroys cancer cells directly by damaging the DNA (building block of the cell) or indirectly, by first hitting (or colliding with) "free radicals" that in turn will hit (and collide with) and damage the cancer DNA. Because "free radicals" are used as part of the treatment process, your doctor may ask you to stop taking MEGA-doses of Antioxidants during treatment.  Be sure to discuss this and let your doctor know all medications you are taking, including those bought over the counter. This is the basics of Radiation and how Radiation Therapy works in Oncology.

Oncology uses radiation therapy to kill cancerous cells with X-rays or another type of radiation. Radiation therapy destroys cellular DNA, which prevents cancerous cells from growing or reproducing. Most of the time, radiation therapy is administered externally, with the help of a machine that produces radioactive rays. Sometimes, oncologists might implant radioactive materials into your body, where they can have the most effect on the cancerous cells. These radioactive substances are left in place for a brief period and are later removed. Oncologists typically take steps to protect healthy cells from exposure to radiation, though normal cells are typically able to recover from the effects of radiation therapy.

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