Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to shrink tumors and kill cancer cells (1). X-rays, gamma rays, and charged particles are types of radiation used for cancer treatment.
The radiation may be delivered by a machine outside the body (external-beam radiation therapy), or it may come from radioactive material placed in the body near cancer cells (internal radiation therapy, also called brachytherapy).
Systemic radiation therapy uses radioactive substances, such as radioactive iodine, that travel in the blood to kill cancer cells.
About half of all cancer patients receive some type of radiation therapy sometime during the course of their treatment.
Radiation therapy kills cancer cells by damaging their DNA (the molecules inside cells that carry genetic information and pass it from one generation to the next) (1). Radiation therapy can either damage DNA directly or create charged particles (free radicals) within the cells that can in turn damage the DNA.
Cancer cells whose DNA is damaged beyond repair stop dividing or die. When the damaged cells die, they are broken down and eliminated by the body’s natural processes.
No, radiation therapy can also damage normal cells, leading to side effects.
Doctors take potential damage to normal cells into account when planning a course of radiation therapy. The amount of radiation that normal tissue can safely receive is known for all parts of the body. Doctors use this information to help them decide where to aim radiation during treatment.
How is radiation therapy given to patients?
Radiation can come from a machine outside the body (external-beam radiation therapy) or from radioactive material placed in the body near cancer cells (internal radiation therapy, more commonly called brachytherapy). Systemic radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance, given by mouth or into a vein, that travels in the blood to tissues throughout the body.
The type of radiation therapy prescribed by a radiation oncologist depends on many factors, including:
- The type of cancer.
- The size of the cancer.
- The cancer’s location in the body.
- How close the cancer is to normal tissues that are sensitive to radiation.
- How far into the body the radiation needs to travel.
- The patient’s general health and medical history.
- Whether the patient will have other types of cancer treatment.
- Other factors, such as the patient’s age and other medical conditions.
External-beam radiation therapy
External-beam radiation therapy is most often delivered in the form of photon beams (either x-rays or gamma rays) (1). A photon is the basic unit of light and other forms ofelectromagnetic radiation. It can be thought of as a bundle of energy. The amount of energy in a photon can vary. For example, the photons in gamma rays have the highest energy, followed by the photons in x-rays.
Many types of external-beam radiation therapy are delivered using a machine called a linear accelerator (also called a LINAC). A LINAC uses electricity to form a stream of fast-moving subatomic particles. This creates high-energy radiation that may be used to treat cancer.
Patients usually receive external-beam radiation therapy in daily treatment sessions over the course of several weeks. The number of treatment sessions depends on many factors, including the total radiation dose that will be given.
One of the most common types of external-beam radiation therapy is called 3-dimensional conformal radiation therapy(3D-CRT). 3D-CRT uses very sophisticated computer software and advanced treatment machines to deliver radiation to very precisely shaped target areas.
Many other methods of external-beam radiation therapy are currently being tested and used in cancer treatment. These methods include:
- Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): IMRT uses hundreds of tiny radiation beam-shaping devices, called collimators, to deliver a single dose of radiation (2). The collimators can be stationary or can move during treatment, allowing the intensity of the radiation beams to change during treatment sessions. This kind of dose modulation allows different areas of a tumor or nearby tissues to receive different doses of radiation.Unlike other types of radiation therapy, IMRT is planned in reverse (called inverse treatment planning). In inverse treatment planning, the radiation oncologist chooses the radiation doses to different areas of the tumor and surrounding tissue, and then a high-powered computer program calculates the required number of beams and angles of the radiation treatment (3). In contrast, during traditional (forward) treatment planning, the radiation oncologist chooses the number and angles of the radiation beams in advance and computers calculate how much dose will be delivered from each of the planned beams.The goal of IMRT is to increase the radiation dose to the areas that need it and reduce radiation exposure to specific sensitive areas of surrounding normal tissue. Compared with 3D-CRT, IMRT can reduce the risk of some side effects, such as damage to thesalivary glands (which can cause dry mouth, or xerostomia), when the head and neck are treated with radiation therapy (4). However, with IMRT, a larger volume of normal tissue overall is exposed to radiation. Whether IMRT leads to improved control of tumor growth and better survival compared with 3D-CRT is not yet known (4).
- Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT): In IGRT, repeated imaging scans (CT, MRI, or PET) are performed during treatment. These imaging scans are processed by computers to identify changes in a tumor’s size and location due to treatment and to allow the position of the patient or the planned radiation dose to be adjusted during treatment as needed. Repeated imaging can increase the accuracy of radiation treatment and may allow reductions in the planned volume of tissue to be treated, thereby decreasing the total radiation dose to normal tissue (5).
- Tomotherapy: Tomotherapy is a type of image-guided IMRT. A tomotherapy machine is a hybrid between a CT imaging scanner and an external-beam radiation therapy machine (6). The part of the tomotherapy machine that delivers radiation for both imaging and treatment can rotate completely around the patient in the same manner as a normal CT scanner.Tomotherapy machines can capture CT images of the patient’s tumor immediately before treatment sessions, to allow for very precise tumor targeting and sparing of normal tissue.Like standard IMRT, tomotherapy may be better than 3D-CRT at sparing normal tissue from high radiation doses (7). However, clinical trials comparing 3D-CRT with tomotherapy have not been conducted.
- Stereotactic radiosurgery: Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) can deliver one or more high doses of radiation to a small tumor (5, 8). SRS uses extremely accurate image-guided tumor targeting and patient positioning. Therefore, a high dose of radiation can be given without excess damage to normal tissue.SRS can be used to treat only small tumors with well-defined edges. It is most commonly used in the treatment of brain or spinal tumors and brain metastases from other cancer types. For the treatment of some brain metastases, patients may receive radiation therapy to the entire brain (called whole-brain radiation therapy) in addition to SRS.SRS requires the use of a head frame or other device to immobilize the patient during treatment to ensure that the high dose of radiation is delivered accurately.
- Stereotactic body radiation therapy: Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) delivers radiation therapy in fewer sessions, using smaller radiation fields and higher doses than 3D-CRT in most cases. By definition, SBRT treats tumors that lie outside the brain and spinal cord. Because these tumors are more likely to move with the normal motion of the body, and therefore cannot be targeted as accurately as tumors within the brain or spine, SBRT is usually given in more than one dose (8). SBRT can be used to treat only small, isolated tumors, including cancers in the lung and liver (8).Many doctors refer to SBRT systems by their brand names, such as the CyberKnife®.
- Proton therapy: External-beam radiation therapy can be delivered by proton beams as well as the photon beams described above. Protons are a type of charged particle.Proton beams differ from photon beams mainly in the way they deposit energy in living tissue. Whereas photons deposit energy in small packets all along their path through tissue, protons deposit much of their energy at the end of their path (called the Bragg peak) and deposit less energy along the way.In theory, use of protons should reduce the exposure of normal tissue to radiation, possibly allowing the delivery of higher doses of radiation to a tumor (9). Proton therapy has not yet been compared with standard external-beam radiation therapy in clinical trials (10, 11).
- Other charged particle beams: Electron beams are used to irradiate superficial tumors, such as skin cancer or tumors near the surface of the body, but they cannot travel very far through tissue (1). Therefore, they cannot treat tumors deep within the body.