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What is Radiation Oncology

Radiation therapy (irradiation) is the use of high-energy radiation – primarily X-rays – to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy can be used in combination with surgery, chemotherapy and/or biologic therapy to cure, control or palliate patients with cancer. What is cancer? Cancer is a group of many diseases identified by an uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells.

How Radiation Therapy Works

Since the discovery of radioactivity and X-rays, scientists realized that radiation could cause damage to cells by interfering with the cell's ability to grow and reproduce. Cells that are growing and multiplying are especially sensitive to the effects of radiation. This is particularly important in treating cancer. Cancer cells reproduce more frequently than normal cells, so they are more susceptible to damage from radiation. Normal cells can also be affected by radiation, but normal cells tend to be able to recover from radiation damage.

When radiation treatments are given for cancer, special care is taken to ensure that as much normal tissue as possible is spared from radiation exposure. The radiation dose is precisely measured and carefully aimed to kill as many cancer cells as possible while sparing normal tissue.

Risks and Benefits of Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy can be used to treat almost any type of cancer, anywhere in the body. When radiation is combined with surgery, the radiation treatments may be given pre-operatively. In this case, radiation will be used to decrease the size of a tumor to facilitate removal. More commonly, though, the radiation treatments are given post-operatively. Sometimes, radiation treatments may be given in combination with chemotherapy treatments. For many people, radiation therapy will be the only treatment necessary for their cancer.

Whatever the case, radiation therapy plays a very important part in cancer treatment. For any treatment of disease, there are always risks involved. This is also true of radiation therapy. In damaging cancer cells, some normal cells may also be damaged, resulting in side effects. The potential side effects will be explained to you by the Radiation Oncologist and the Radiation Oncology Nurse. All possible measures are taken to reduce the extent of any side effects. Many people complete their treatment with little or no difficulty at all.