A cancer diagnosis can be devastating. Once the shock wears off, knowing what to expect and understanding your treatment options are significant steps on your road to recovery. As one of the most common treatments, radiation therapy is a key part of many cancer patient journeys.
In this video, Dr. Tripuraneni, and Ray Lin, MD, a radiation oncologist at Scripps Cancer Center and Scripps Clinic, join San Diego Health host Susan Taylor to discuss major advancements in radiation therapy that have made this technology-based treatment safer and more effective at saving lives and preventing cancer from reoccurring.
More than 1.7 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. More than half will be treated with radiation therapy, either as the sole treatment or in combination with other treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy and immunotherapy.
“We treat just about every single type of cancer with a different radiation therapy, including brain tumors, throat cancers, lung cancers, breast cancers, pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer,” Dr. Tripuraneni says.
In radiation therapy, high energy radiation is used to shrink tumors or destroy cancer cells. Radiation beams damage the DNA of targeted cancer cells, preventing them from growing and dividing.
There are two major types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy — the most common type — uses a machine called a linear accelerator to direct radiation to a specific part of the body.
Internal radiation therapy, also known as brachytherapy, uses radioactive material that is placed inside the body to kill cancer cells.
The type of radiation therapy a cancer patient receives depends on many factors, including the type of cancer, the size of the tumor, the location of the tumor and its proximity to healthy tissues.
Different cancers respond to radiation therapy in different ways. Some are more responsive. Others are more resistant. But in the end “all cancers can be treated with radiation therapy,” Dr. Lin says. “You just have to manipulate the amount of dose you give per day and determine how often to give it based on the sensitivities of the tumor.”
While radiation therapy has been around for more than a century, it has improved dramatically in recent decades due largely to advances in radiation physics and computer technology.
Linear accelerators today come with sophisticated imaging technology that allow physicians to target hard-to-reach tumors and treat many different types of cancers. Precision is key when using radiation to kill cancer cells or slow tumor growth while sparing normal tissues.
“At Scripps Health, we have linear accelerators that allow us to treat with submillimeter precision,” Dr. Lin says.
One such advanced linear accelerator is the TrueBeam STx, which is known for its speed and ability to capture images of a tumor even when it moves during natural breathing patterns. “It’s so much more precise that you can give a higher dose in fewer treatments,” Dr. Tripuraneni adds.
Once radiation therapy is recommended, a highly specialized care team that includes a radiation oncologist, a medical physicist and a medical dosimetrist develops a treatment plan.
The exact part of the body to target with radiation is located and the number of doses is scheduled. The patient also goes through a simulation exercise to map out the tumor site. “We immobilize the patient so that they are treated in the same position each day as during the simulation,” Dr. Lin says.
Radiation takes about five to 10 minutes. Most patients have daily treatments Monday through Friday for up to eight weeks.
Radiation therapy can cause side effects in some people, depending on several factors, including the area being treated and dose amount. Common side effects include fatigue, skin irritation, hair loss and gastrointestinal problems.
While major advances in radiation technology have led to fewer side effects, everyone’s experience with radiation therapy is different.
“The most important thing is actually to have a treatment plan,” Dr. Lin says.