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What is Beam Radiation?

By Archana Khambekar
Updated May 17, 2024
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Beam radiation is a type of localized treatment that may be recommended for cancer patients. Treatment is administered externally with a machine that directs high energy radiation to specific areas of the body to kill cancer cells and minimize tumors. Beam radiation treatment can usually be done as an outpatient procedure. A cancer patient may undergo radiation therapy for several weeks based on the type of cancer and treatment objective. The treatment might cause side effects such as nausea, vomiting, tiredness, and skin irritation at the area treated.

External beam radiation is used to treat various forms of cancer. The radiation harms the genetic material of the cancerous cells. It can help destruct cancer cells, check their growth, and preclude recurrence. Beam radiation may be the primary treatment course, or prescribed in conjunction with other forms of cancer treatment namely chemotherapy. It could be recommended prior to surgery to constrict cancer cells or post surgery to control growth of any residual cancer cells. Sometimes, beam radiation therapy is advised to ease symptoms brought on by cancer.

The treatment involves the use of a machine called the linear accelerator that beams high energy radiation to specific cancer sites on the patient’s body. External radiation could be in the form of high energy x-ray beams, or a beam of accelerated subatomic particles such as electrons, protons or neutrons. The machine may move around the patient's body to deliver radiation to the regions targeted for treatment.

Before commencing treatment, the radiation specialist typically conducts a simulation to determine areas where radiation should be directed. Usually, the sites on the patient’s body where radiation is to be focused are marked. The treatment team decides on the duration of the course, and the dose of radiation needed to treat the cancer. The prescribed dosage can depend on various factors such as the form of cancer, the stage of the condition, the patient’s overall health, and treatment objective.

During the treatment session, the patient might be asked to sit or lie down on a table, and a special body mold could be used to maintain the patient in correct position. Other parts of the body may be protected from the radiation with the help of shields. Generally, beam radiation treatment doesn’t cause pain, and each session can take about 10 to 30 minutes.

The course may extend from two to ten weeks with sessions conducted five days of the week at an outpatient radiation treatment center. Treatment sessions may be spaced out to enable healthy cells recover from the radiation. Usually, doctors call for follow-up tests such as X-rays and scans to monitor how the cancer responds to treatment.

While external radiation acts on the cancer cells, it might harm healthy tissue in the adjoining areas, and treatment can have some side effects. The side effects experienced vary with the area treated, and could include fatigue, nausea, mouth dryness, diarrhea, and vomiting. Patients who are treated with beam radiation in the pelvic area may suffer from urinary difficulty, vaginal dryness, sexual and fertility problems. The treatment might result in scarring, skin redness, darkening of the skin color, and hair loss in the area treated. Usually, doctors can recommend ways to alleviate some of the side effects.

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