How does radiation therapy work?

Radiation therapy is one of the most common cancer treatments and can be prescribed for a range of different diagnoses. Although targeted at abnormal cells, radiation also affects normal cells, but they can recover more quickly than the abnormal ones. Generally, treatment is given five (5) times a week to allow normal cells to recover over the weekend, though treatment does not need to start on a Monday and therefore does not necessarily need to be consecutive. Treatment intent can be either curative or palliative. Curative treatment aims to eradicate the cancer completely whereas palliative treatment aims to improve quality of life by treating the symptoms by decreasing tumour bulk. The radiation oncologist decides on treatment intent. It is likely you will meet other patients during the course of your treatment who compare your treatment and diagnoses to theirs. It is important to keep in mind that your treatment was designed specifically for you and may be completely different to theirs. Not everyone will experience the same symptoms or side effects of treatment. Radiation therapy may be administered alone, or in combination with chemotherapy or surgery as part of a multidisciplinary approach. Some chemotherapy drugs are administered as a radiation therapy sensitiser to make cancer cells more responsive to radiation. Radiation therapy includes different ways of administration which may be used in combination for a single patient. Cancercare’s practices apply the following treatment techniques

  • external beam radiation therapy
  • stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS)
  • stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT)
  • intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)
  • volumetric modulated arc therapy (VMAT)
  • brachytherapy

Some specialised techniques are only available at certain practices.