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What is Radiation Therapy?

Radiation therapy is a medical procedure that involves using radiation to reduce or completely eradicate cancer cells. Also called radiotherapy, X- and gamma-rays paired with charged particles are commonly used for this type of treatment. The radiation can be delivered three ways: external-beam, brachytherapy, or systematically. External-beam radiation therapy uses a machine to direct the rays into the body. Brachytherapy, or internal radiation therapy, involves administering a radioactive substance directly into the affected area. In systemic radiotherapy, the radiation is delivered to all parts of the body via the bloodstream. This last method is often used on patients that have a type of blood cancer like Leukemia or cancer in different places in the body.

How Does Radiation Therapy Work?

The radiation attacks the cancer by destroying the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) inside the cancerous cells. DNA is a molecule inside of the cell that carries the genetic information that directs the cell’s growth and purpose. Radiation either destroys this molecule directly or creates other molecules called free radicals to damage it. After being damaged in such a manner, the cells lose their ability to repair themselves or replicate, and the body eventually purges them.

However, radiation therapy is a double-edge sword. While it can eradicate cancer cells, it can also kill healthy cells which often leads to unpleasant side effects.

Why Use Radiation Therapy?

Radiation is harmful to all living organisms and can cause adverse changes the natural environment. If radiation is so dangerous, then why use it as a medical treatment? The short answer is because it works. There are three ways radiation is used in medical settings. The primary way is as a curative treatment for cancer that attempts to eradicate all signs of the abnormal cells. The second way is palliative; radioactive therapy is used in this situation to reduce the symptoms, like pain, of a disease. The third way is adjuvant; radiation therapy is used in addition to surgery or other medical treatments to cure or mitigate the development of a disease.

While effective, it is important to understand the risks associated with the use of radiation therapy. Typically the treatment will cause side effects such as itching, skin blistering, fatigue, diarrhea, hair loss, swelling, nausea, and vomiting. Additionally, each person is limited to the amount of radiation they can safely be exposed to in his or her lifetime. It is critical to discuss these issues with a qualified medical professional before undergoing any type of radiation treatment.