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What is Stereotactic Radiation Therapy?

By Christina Whyte
Updated May 17, 2024
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Stereotactic radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that involves delivering a very focused, intense beam of radiation to a tumor. In this treatment, the tumor is damaged at a cellular level so that it shrinks and disappears rather than removing it outright. There are a few different ways of doing this depending on the tumor location. Stereotactic radiation therapy is generally a safe and painless treatment for certain kinds of cancer, although it does have some side effects.

The two different kinds of stereotactic radiation therapy are stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) and stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT). Stereotactic radiosurgery is used to target tumors in the brain or spinal cord. Stereotactic body radiotherapy is used for tumors in the rest of the body, such as the liver or lungs. Both types are provided in hospital by specialist, certified radiation oncologists in partnership with other medical professionals, such as neurologists and radiologists.

Tumors that are small and well-defined but difficult to get to, such as those in the brain, deep in the body, or close to vital organs, are the best candidates for stereotactic radiation therapy. It is not suitable for all or even most tumors. Patients should be aware of all available options for the cancer in question, since this treatment is only one option.

Stereotactic radiation therapy is very precise, which is why it is good for targeting small tumors in difficult areas. It is safer for the patient because only the tumor receives radiation, not the surrounding organs and tissue. Radiation oncologists use three-dimensional imaging techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to determine the exact dimensions of the tumor so that radiation can be delivered accurately.

The specific machines and systems used for stereotactic radiation therapy vary. Some are designed to keep the patient perfectly immobile, whereas others are designed to move with the body while the patient breathes. They also differ in terms of the number of sessions they are designed to deliver, ranging from a single one-time session to multiple sessions over a longer time period.

Receiving stereotactic radiation therapy is similar to having an x-ray or other scan. The patient will not actually feel the treatment, although remaining immobilized can cause some muscle pain and discomfort as well as claustrophobia in some patients. Some side effects such as headache, tiredness, skin redness or swelling, and digestive problems are relatively common short term effects. Long term side effects are rare but can be serious, including secondary cancer caused by the treatment. Patients should ask for information from medical professionals about side effects for various treatment options.

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