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What Is Therapeutic Radiology?

By Deneatra Harmon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Therapeutic radiology treats cancers or other illnesses by using high-energy radiation. Doctors, specifically oncologists, must follow certain types of protocol before designating treatment. Also known as radiation oncology, therapeutic radiology is designed to control cancer symptoms or get rid of it altogether. During the procedure, the oncologist uses an X-ray to kill the tumors or stop them from multiplying, but how much radiation a patient receives depends on three factors, including the location of the cancer, the cancer type, and the effects of radiation on neighboring tissues. Brachytherapy and external beam therapy are the most common therapeutic treatments, along with several newer procedures as of 2011.

Before the therapeutic treatments can begin, the doctor and medical team must set up the appropriate protocols, including a simulation and a treatment plan. During the simulation phase, the specialists plan how the patient will be positioned with the use of molds, headrests, and additional devices such as shields to guard healthy surrounding tissue. Areas of the patient’s body may also be marked so that the medical team administers the radiation to the exact location of the tumors. After the simulation, the oncologist determines the appropriate therapeutic radiology treatment plan.

In therapeutic radiology, patients receive one of two standard types of treatment, including brachytherapy and external beam therapy. Brachytherapy delivers radiation inside the body through wires, rods, or seeds while the patient is under a general anesthesia. Oncologists often use this type of therapy to treat vaginal, rectal, and uterine cancers, as well as cervical cancer. It may also be used to treat certain neck, head, and eye cancers.

External beam therapy treats cancer from outside the body with help from a machine. Some examples of devices include cobalt machines, orthovoltage X-rays, or linear accelerators. During the process, which is usually performed in an outpatient setting, the patient must sit or lie still to ensure that the radiation directly targets the tumors. The doctor usually provides molds and other equipment to properly position the patient, as well as special shields to protect healthy tissues. External beam therapy often treats cancers of the lung, breast, and prostate, in addition to brain tumors.

While external beam and brachytherapy treatments serve as the most common types of therapeutic radiology, other advances are being evaluated, according to the Ohio State University Medical Center. For instance, radioimmunotherapy treats tumors by using "tagged" antibodies that consist of radiopharmaceutical substances designed to recognize tumors. Particle radiation therapy relies on charged particles and neutrons to treat cancer. Intraoperative irradiation allows oncologists to use external beam therapy in conjunction with surgery or chemotherapy to effectively treat cancer.

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