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What is Radiation Oncology?

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What is radiation oncology?

Radiation oncology is a medical speciality that involves the controlled use of radiation to treat cancer either for cure, or to reduce pain and other symptoms caused by cancer. Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) is the term used to describe the actual treatment delivered by the radiation oncology team.

Three unique specialist professions are involved in the practice of radiation oncology: Radiation Oncologists (doctors), Radiation Therapists and Radiation Oncology Medical Physicists. These highly trained medical professionals use advanced technologies to deliver safe and effective radiation therapy to cancer patients with as few side effects as possible. Radiation therapy is a part of treatment in around 40% of all patients cured of cancer1.

Why is radiation oncology important?

Over 100,000 Australians are diagnosed with cancer each year1. In 2010, 21,235 cancers were registered in New Zealand2. It is estimated that about half of them will benefit from radiation therapy as part of their overall cancer treatment1. This means that 1 in 2 patients with cancer may benefit from radiation therapy at some point during their illness.

Radiation therapy can be applied safely to a wide range of cancers, and may be used alone or in conjunction with surgery, chemotherapy and other treatments. It is usually completely non-invasive, and accessed through out-patient clinics. Radiation therapy is a highly cost effective cancer treatment.

It costs less than 9 cents out of each health-care dollar spent on treating cancer overall, yet it is vital in about 40% of all cancers that are cured1. With cancer being the leading cause of death world-wide, investment in improving radiation oncology treatments, helping cancer patients access radiation therapy and building new treatment centres have never been more important.

The future of radiation oncology

The technology used in radiation oncology is constantly improving. Recent advances have benefited many patients with cancer, resulting in higher cure rates, fewer side effects, shorter treatments and improved quality of life. New technology provides three-dimensional images of tumours that precisely target radiation beams to the cancer, limiting damage to important adjacent organs. Real-time imaging is in development which will enable treatment teams to compensate for tiny involuntary patient movements, such as breathing.

Current clinical trials are investigating drugs that sensitise cancer cells to the effects of radiation, making them easier to destroy with radiation therapy. Meanwhile, protective drugs may help healthy cells recover better after exposure to radiation. Cancer is already the leading cause of total burden of disease and injury in Australia and New Zealand. With ageing populations who are more likely to develop cancer, this problem will only increase.

Investment in technological, clinical and laboratory research and in building radiation treatment centres is vital for the health of Australians and New Zealanders now and into the future. In this way, more and more people who need cancer treatment can benefit from our world-leading, high quality, safe and effective radiation oncology services.