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What Is Intraoperative Radiation Therapy?

By Jillian O Keeffe
Updated May 17, 2024
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Intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT) is a form of treatment for a cancer patient. "Intraoperative" means during an operation, and radiation therapy involves exposing a tumor to destructive radiation in the hope that the tumor shrinks or disappears. Some cases of cancer cannot be resolved with surgical removal alone, or the tumor may be too close to essential bodily structures like major blood vessels to be safely removed during surgery. Patients with these types of cancers may receive intraoperative radiation therapy, as can people with cancers that tend to recur often.

Surgical removal of a tumor is one treatment option for people with cancer. Anticancer drugs or radiation treatment are other common options for cancer treatment. Sometimes the treatments are combined to give the patient the best possible chance at a good outcome. Intraoperative radiation therapy is an example of a treatment that is combined with another, in this case surgery. Tumors are made up of a collection of cells, and these cells typically spread from a single point of origin outward.

If the tumor is present as a solid mass, such as in cervical cancers, breast cancers or cancers of the digestive tract, then a surgeon may be able to remove the mass in an operation. Often, though, the removal of the mass does not cure the cancer in its entirety, and other treatment options are also employed. The surgeon usually attempts to remove all visible cancer, along with a margin of apparently healthy tissue, just in case the tumor cells have spread into the surrounding tissue. Intraoperative radiation therapy is another way of destroying potential cancer cells in the vicinity of the tumor or the space left by the removal of the tumor.

Radiation is a form of energy that is present in wavelengths. The application of high levels of radiation, enough to destroy cells, requires a specific machine. Various forms of energy can be used in radiation machines, from photons of light to electrons, which are small particles that help make up atoms. Common to all types of radiation machine, however, is that the machine raises the natural energy of the radiation to levels that are unnaturally, and destructively high.

As the radiation machines need only target a specific area of the body, and a specific tumor, they produce the radiation in beams that only focus on a particular area. To prevent the energy from damaging surrounding healthy areas, the surgeon places shields around the tumor so only the cancerous tissue, or the potentially cancerous tissue, is targeted. This technique of applying radiation can be safer than traditional radiation treatments, as the area affected is narrow, and the patient does not have to be exposed to a course of radiation therapies.

The technique is useful both for people who have tumors that are in places that surgery cannot reach, such as attached to major blood vessels. People with small tumors, those who suffer from recurrent tumors, and those with tumors that cannot be entirely removed with surgery alone, can also benefit from the treatment. IORT, while potentially useful, is not capable of destroying all cancer cells in all cases.

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