Medically Reviewed by Virginia L. Clyburn-Ipock, MD
Radiation – more powerful than an X-ray – brings many benefits to today’s cancer patients. It can diagnose, shrink and even kill off tumors.
Here are the key elements addressed by Dr. Clyburn-Ipock:
Radiation therapy is used in the treatment of many cancers today. Radiation utilizes high-energy X-ray beams. Basically, it’s diagnostic scans, such as a CT scan or X-ray. The difference is that it’s just a high-energy, high-powered beam. Those beams are used to kill cancer cells, which are rapidly dividing cells within the body.
Radiation therapy is used in the treatment of cancers in the definitive setting, which mean we can treat cancers to cure the cancer. We can also use radiation in the post-operative setting (meaning if someone has had surgery we can use radiation afterwards to take care of any microscopic disease that could be there). Or radiation can be used in the palliative setting. If someone has metastatic disease, where we are not trying to achieve a cure, we can treat an area to alleviate pain that they’re having.
Radiation therapy is quite frequently utilized with chemotherapy because in many types of cancer chemotherapy will actually sensitize tumor cells to radiation and, therefore, chemotherapy and radiation can work together to actually increase the chances of curing a certain cancer. In certain cases, for example breast cancer, which we see quite a bit of in this area, often a patient will have surgery first followed by months of chemotherapy. Then, radiation will be used afterwards.
Sometimes radiation and chemotherapy are used at the same time. For example, chemotherapy will be used before or after radiation, depending on the tumor cell and depending on its sensitivities.
Chemotherapy can also be used initially to shrink the size of the tumor. When radiation is delivered there is a smaller area that we are treating. Likewise, radiation sometimes can be utilized before surgery to treat or shrink a tumor, so that the surgeons are more likely to have clear margins, enabling them to re-sect the tumor in full.
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