Aside from chemotherapy, therapeutic radiography, or radiation therapy, is one of the most common treatments used to kill cancerous cells and keep them in remission. This category of cancer treatment involves various techniques and therapies to best apply the beams of radiological energy to the areas with the greatest prevalence of cancerous tissue. Often, oncologists will recommend chemotherapy and radiation therapy to battle cancer.
Two main types of radiation therapy are possible, both of which are often recommended to work in concert. The first type of therapeutic radiography is an external beam of much greater intensity than when taking x-ray images, which is aimed through the skin, muscle and even internal organs and bone before reaching the cancer cells being attacked. The internal method, called brachytherapy, involves inserting small pockets of radioactive material into the body, near tumors, to kill cancerous cells or at least slow their progression.
Just like the cancers it is aimed at combating, therapeutic radiography is not without its complications. Side effects range from hair loss and nausea to digestive disturbances and localized swelling. These types of symptoms typically occur during and up to a few months after treatment is completed. After six months or more, long-term side effects could be serious like infertility, lymphatic disorders, achy joints and even another type of cancer spreading.
To minimize these potential side effects, a simulation often is performed before therapeutic radiography begins in order to gauge the exact location of the treatments and the proper dosage. Intensive radiological scanning is the norm before any therapeutic radiography, to pinpoint the exact location of the tumor and identify the best way to attack it with radiation. For instance, to treat a facial or brain tumor, a mask is often used, attached to the table, to hold a patient's head in precisely the same position for each application of radiation. Finally, a radiation oncologist then will determine the particular dosage of radiation, measured in an increment called the "gray," based on the dosages that have provided the best past results when treating different types of cancers.
The level and application of radiation doses depends on the location and type of cancerous condition being treated. Standard doses for a particular type of cancer may be lowered if the cancerous cells are close to sensitive tissue, such as the brain or heart. Radiation oncologists who specialize in this particular treatment have identified the appropriate dosages through scientific and anecdotal evidence over a few decades of use as a cancer treatment.