What Is Radiation Therapy?
Radiation damages the DNA of cancer cells and prevents them from growing, dividing and spreading. The goal of radiation therapy is to eradicate or shrink tumors or to treat pain or other symptoms caused by cancer. Although radiation therapy is sometimes used alone, it is most often combined with chemotherapy, hormone therapy or surgery.
Surgery has a limited role in the treatment of some cancers. In fact, it is not often used for advanced lung cancer, head and neck cancer, cervical or vaginal cancer, or skin cancer. Radiation therapy is a reasonable alternative for many early cancers, such as those of the lung, bladder, cervix or breast.
More than half of all patients with cancer receive radiation as an adjuvant therapy to prevent a recurrence of cancer after surgery or chemotherapy. The decision to use radiation and its possible benefits should be discussed with a radiation oncologist.
Radiation is also used to treat some non-cancer conditions such as hemangiomas, and to prevent the formation of heterotopic bone or keloids.
How Is Radiation Given?
Most often, radiation is generated from a linear accelerator that delivers high-energy beams directly to the target tumor.
After careful treatment planning, the course of radiation therapy is divided into small doses of focused beams, usually given once or twice per day, five times per week, over several weeks. This type of external radiation therapy is painless for the patient.
For some patients, a small device is placed inside the body during a procedure called brachytherapy.
Whatever the type of radiation therapy, detailed information is given to each patient about:
How to prepare for radiation therapy
The number of treatments required
What to expect during each treatment
Possible side effects
What Kind of Radiation Therapy Is Given?
Radiation therapy is carefully planned to fit each patient's unique situation. The radiation oncologist will do a physical exam, perform tests, review all test results and consult with other specialists. After talking with the patient about all available options, the radiation oncologist creates a customized, detailed plan for therapy and discusses it with the patient. If the patient decides to have radiation therapy, there may be "practice runs" to pinpoint the tumor location. If the tumor target is clear, daily treatments begin.
Temple and Fox Chase radiation therapists and nurses educate patients, deliver the prescribed therapy, and assist and reassure patients during therapy. Consultations with Fox Chase Cancer Center and Temple University Hospital – including medical and surgical oncologists, neurosurgeons, radiologists, pharmacists and pain management specialists – are easily arranged.
A variety of other support and educational services are available for patients and their families:
Access to patient support groups, including groups for patients with specific types of cancer
Introduction to Temple and Fox Chase Radiation Oncology and facilities tour for new and prospective patients
Assistance with the daily details of radiation therapy, including scheduling, meal and wait/recovery planning, transportation and lodging
Referrals for mental health, stress management or pastoral care
Financial counseling to help with insurance or other money issues
Opportunities to participate in research and clinical trials
Interpreters for non-English speaking patients