About Radiation Treatment
by Michael Madson
About Radiation Treatment
Radiation treatment uses beams of ionizing radiation to fight cancer. These beams are painless, but when they hit a cancer cell, they damage its DNA, which prevents the cell from growing and multiplying. Radiation treatment has proven its effectiveness time and again, and currently, about half of all cancer patients will make visits to a radiation oncologist, according to an August 25, 2004 National Cancer Institute document.
Soon after the discovery of X-rays in 1895 and radium in 1898, doctors put radiation to medical use. Radiation was initially used to remove unwanted hair, but by WWI, its uses had expanded to skin, breast, head, neck and lymph node cancers. During the decades that followed, scientists studied how radiation worked and how they could measure its dosage accurately.
A major breakthrough came in the 1970s with computers and improved medical technology. Doctors could then target tumors with greater precision, allowing them to treat cancers of the cervix, prostate, breast and esophagus. Today, doctors continue to refine radiation treatment to increase its effectiveness and reduce its side effects.
Radiation treatment can shrink a tumor or eradicate it completely. It can also be used in combination with other cancer treatments. For example, some patients will undergo radiation treatment before cancer surgery, and others will use radiation treatment in conjunction with chemotherapy.
Another function of radiation treatment is palliation. That is, radiation treatment can help relieve the pain caused by cancer.
There are two main types of radiation treatment: internal and external. Internal radiation treatment, or brachytherapy, involves placing small amounts of radioactive material into tissue known to have cancer. External radiation treatment directs high-energy beams at cancerous tissue. In this type of treatment, doctors will etch tiny tattoos--smaller than a freckle--on the patient's skin. The tattoos ensure that the treatment area is consistent throughout the treatment.
Complications from radiation treatment depend on the treatment area. However, some common complications include fatigue, hair loss, nausea, vomiting, lack of appetite and diarrhea. If radiation passes through the sexual organs, patients may also become infertile.
The Mayo Clinic notes that radiation therapy's effectiveness will vary from patient to patient. In some cases, the cancer responds immediately to the radiation. In other cases, it takes weeks or even months for the radiation to take effect. Sometimes radiation treatment has no effect on a patient's cancer.