How Does Radiation Therapy Work?

by Jennifer Bradford on May 11, 2009

Radiation therapy is a common form of cancer treatment, but few people understand how it actually works.

As you know, your body is made up of thousands of cells. A normal cell in the body will grow and divide to create new cells. Unfortunately, when someone has an illness such as cancer, the cancerous cells grow and divide much faster than the healthy cells and attacks parts of the body with illness and disease. These cells must be destroyed in order to rid the body of cancer, and radiation therapy is one method of doing that.

Radiation therapy is a treatment process that people suffering from certain forms of cancer, such as cancers of the bladder, neck, lung, and head, receive in order to battle the illness and kill off or deform the cells that are attacking the body. It is among the most popular forms of treatment of cancer, and it’s also one of the most effective. A patient can receive external treatment, internal radiation therapy treatment, or systemic radiation therapy as a means of destroying cancerous cells.

Radiation therapy can often be confused with chemotherapy, and that’s mostly because the two therapies are often used to treat the same illnesses. Make no mistake though – they are very different. The main difference between the two is that, in radiation therapy, the treatment is more localized, whereas chemo is generally intended for and administered to the entire body.  In the case of systemic radiation therapy, though, the whole body is usually affected as the radiation drugs are either given orally or through injection.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy utilizes different forms of radiation to kill off cancer cells. E-rays, gamma rays, and electron beams are all sources of radiation used in therapy. At first glance, those words can sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but if you’ve ever administered radiation therapy through a linear accelerator, then you know that science fiction doesn’t even come close.

The cancer cells that are attacked through radiation therapy are either killed or impaired so that they are no longer able to grow and divide. Advancements in technology have made radiation therapy much safer to use than in the past, as cancerous cells can now be targeted with greater precision, decreasing the amount of damage done to healthy cells. As the technology continues to develop, machines become more sophisticated and computers continue to play an active role in successful radiation therapy treatment.

In treatment and the destruction of the cells, complementary therapies may be advised, such as chemotherapy or an alternate form of radiation therapy. Depending on how bad the cancer is, a multifaceted treatment plan may be the best way to treat the patient.

Treatment providers should always go over the risks and benefits of radiation therapy. I know that many patients are concerned about losing their hair, and some may fear that the treatment will make them radioactive. You must keep your patients informed so that they can make the best decision for their treatment and address their concerns seriously. Doing so is the best way to gain a patient’s trust.

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