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What is Radiation Therapy?

1 in 2 people with cancer would benefit from radiation therapy

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What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses radiation, such as high-energy x-rays, gamma rays, electron beams or protons, to kill or damage cancer cells and stop them from growing and multiplying. Radiation therapy is a safe and effective treatment for many types of cancer. It involves the controlled application of radiation to cancers anywhere in the body. Cancerous cells are more susceptible to radiation than healthy, non-cancerous cells.

Exposure to radiation kills cancerous cells and prevents them from growing and/or spreading to other parts of the body. Healthy, non-cancerous cells are much better at recovering from exposure to radiation.

Radiation oncology teams tailor treatment plans for individual patients to ensure each person’s needs are met. This targeted delivery allows the goals of treatment to be better achieved – whether these are to improve survival, cure the patient or relieve symptoms such as pain. Focusing the radiation on the area to be treated reduces the impact of treatment on healthy areas of the body, limiting side effects and preserving quality of life.

There are two main types of radiation therapy: External Beam Radiation Therapy (EBRT) and Brachytherapy.

What can I expect if I’m having radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is different for each patient with cancer. Treatment is prescribed based on several factors, including:

    • the type, size and location of the cancer
    • whether the cancer has spread to other areas of the body
    • the intention of treatment, e.g. symptom relief or cure of cancer
    • whether radiation therapy is being used alone or with other forms of treatment
    • the patient’s general health and personal preferences.

Treatments are painless and are similar to having an X-ray or CT scan.

External Beam Radiation Therapy will not make patients radioactive. It is completely safe to be around other people, including pregnant women, while in treatment phase.

How does radiation therapy help patients?

Approximately half of the Australians and New Zealanders diagnosed with cancer (over 100,000) each year could benefit from radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is a part of the treatment program in around 40% of all patients cured of their cancer. It also has a very important place in helping patients with cancer that cannot be cured. In patients with advanced cancer, radiation therapy is commonly used to shrink tumours, and/or treat cancers that have spread. This provides relief from pain and other symptoms, which is vital for improving a cancer patient’s quality of life.

Many radiation therapy treatments are non-invasive and most are delivered in the outpatient setting, i.e. without being admitted to hospital. Radiation therapy often has minimal side effects. Each visit for treatment usually takes around 20 to 30 minutes. This means that most patients can continue with normal daily activities throughout treatment.

Brachytherapy may require a short hospital stay to implant the radiation ‘seeds’ or sources into the body. After the seeds are implanted, or brachytherapy session with removable sources is over, the patient can continue their normal daily activities. Depending on the type of brachytherapy used, patients may be required to follow some simple radiation safety guidelines for a short period to ensure that other people are not exposed to the radiation.

External beam radiation therapy often requires multiple short visits to the treatment centre over a few days to several weeks (usually Monday to Friday). Generally a small dose of radiation (known as a fraction) is delivered each time, adding up to the total dose. This minimises damage to healthy cells, as the cells can recover between treatments, and maximises the damage caused to cancerous cells.