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What is Radiation Oncology?

By Sandy Baker
Updated May 17, 2024
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Radiation oncology is the use of radiation as a cancer treatment. It is sometimes called radiotherapy or radiation therapy. This cancer treatment uses radiation, or strong beams of energy, to kill cancer cells. Some forms of radiation therapy are in use to stop cancer cells from growing and dividing.

Radiation oncology can be used alone, as a sole treatment for cancer, or it may be used in conjunction with other treatments such as chemotherapy and surgery. Researchers have improved this therapy considerably in the last few years. Doctors now have a good understanding of the amount of radiation needed for very specific forms of cancer. Since they have this precision, the harmful side effects from radiation oncology have been minimized.

Radiation therapy is very specific to the type and severity of cancer the individual has. Typically, an individual will receive small doses of the radiation on a daily basis over a period of several days, up to several weeks. Doctors can select from several types of radiation oncology.

The most common type is external radiation, or external beam radiation therapy (EBRT). In this form of treatment, a linear accelerator produces a beam of high energy radiation. This beam is directed specifically at the cancer cells or tumor. The devices used in this form of cancer treatment can be easily moved from place to place to reach all angles needed. Doctors often give external radiation therapy five times per week, for one to eight weeks, depending on the form of cancer, and treatment only takes a few minutes.

A second form of radiation oncology is internal radiation, or brachytherapy. Doctors can select this treatment if they feel that external radiation would be too difficult. Internal radiation can be more effective for deep tissue cancers. In this form, a radioactive source, called a seed, is placed around or within the cancerous tumor. The source, which may be placed in the patient permanently or temporarily, then emits radiation to the area to kill the cancer cells.

Radiation oncology has other options, too. The Calypso 4D Localization System is a new method for treating prostate cancer, which works like a GPS system to determine the exact location of the prostate during treatment. Another option, the Gamma Knife Radiosurgery, is used to treat brain tumors and lesions.

New technologies and procedures continue to be developed to improve cancer treatment. Radiation may be an appropriate treatment for some patients, but not for others. When it is a therapeutic option, doctors and patients can determine the best form of radiation oncology to treat the cancer.

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