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What is Radiation Therapy

Radiation is a special kind of energy carried by waves or streams of particles. Many years ago, doctors learned how to use this energy (in the form of X-rays) to see inside the body and find disease. When radiation is used at even higher levels, it can be an effective way of treating cancer and other illnesses.

Using high-energy rays or particles to treat cancer is called radiation therapy. It is also sometimes referred to as radiotherapy, X-ray therapy, cobalt therapy, electron beam therapy, or irradiation.

How does it work?

At Minneapolis Radiation Oncology, we use high-energy radiation to stop cancer cells from spreading or growing. Radiation can be administered externally or internally. Some patients get both forms, one after the other.

Most people who receive radiation therapy for cancer have the external type. It is usually given during outpatient visits at one of our treatment centers. In this therapy, a machine directs high-energy rays or particles at the cancer site. The primary machine we use is called a linear accelerator. External radiation treatments are painless (you won’t feel anything while receiving treatment), and they will not make you radioactive.

When internal radiation therapy is used, a radioactive substance, or source, is sealed in small containers called implants. The implant is placed directly into a tumor or inserted into a body cavity. Sometimes, after a tumor has been removed by surgery, implants are put into the area around the incision to kill any cancer cells that may remain. Another type of internal radiation therapy uses unsealed radioactive sources. The source is either taken by mouth or is injected into the body.

Radiation is prescribed the same way any kind of medicine is, and it varies for each person. At your initial consultation, your radiation oncologist will determine the overall dose and treatment plan that’s right for you. Most people receiving radiation therapy come to their MRO therapy center daily, Monday through Friday, for treatments that take 5 to 30 minutes each. The course of your treatment may run anywhere from 1 to 8 weeks.

What are the benefits?

Radiation therapy is an effective way to treat many types of cancer in almost any part of the body. At least half of all people with cancer are treated with radiation, and the number of patients who have been cured is rising every day.

Your oncologist may recommend radiation before surgery to shrink a tumor. After surgery, radiation therapy may be used to stop any remaining cancer cells from growing. In some cases, doctors use radiation in combination with drugs to destroy the cancer, instead of surgery.

Even when curing the cancer is not possible, radiation therapy can bring relief. Many patients are able to enjoy a better quality of life when radiation is used to shrink tumors and reduce pressure, bleeding, pain, or other symptoms.

What are the risks?

Like many other treatments for disease, there are risks involved with radiation therapy. The brief doses of radiation that damage or destroy cancer cells can also hurt normal cells. When this happens, the patient has side effects. However, the risk of side effects is usually outweighed by the benefits of killing cancer cells.

Your oncologist will not advise you to have any treatment unless the potential benefits (controlling cancer or relieving symptoms) are greater than the known risks.