When it comes to cancer treatment, radiation therapy is one of the most effective and commonly-used options. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), more than half of people with cancer receive radiation therapy during the course of their treatment plan.
But with a variety of different types of radiation, it’s important that patients understand the differences between various options.
The Most Common Types of Radiation Therapy
Radiation therapy is a common and effective treatment option for many types of cancer. It works by using high-energy particles or waves to destroy cancer cells, shrink tumors, and prevent the spread of cancer. There are several different types of radiation therapy, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.
In this article, we will explore the different types of radiation therapy used in cancer treatment.
External Beam Radiation Therapy
External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) is the most common type of radiation therapy used in cancer treatment. It works by using a machine to deliver high-energy radiation beams to the site of the tumor. The machine is usually a linear accelerator or linac for short. This type of therapy is typically delivered on an outpatient basis over several weeks, with each session lasting only a few minutes.
There are several different types of EBRT, including:
- Three-Dimensional Conformal Radiation Therapy (3D-CRT): This type of therapy uses advanced imaging technology to create a 3D image of the tumor and surrounding tissue. This allows the radiation beams to be precisely targeted at the tumor, minimizing exposure to healthy tissue.
- Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT): This type of therapy uses a computer-controlled machine to deliver precise radiation beams of varying intensity. This allows for even more precise targeting of the tumor and minimizing exposure to surrounding tissue.
- Image-Guided Radiation Therapy (IGRT): This type of therapy uses advanced imaging technology to guide the delivery of radiation beams to the tumor. This allows for even greater precision and accuracy in targeting the tumor.
Internal Radiation Therapy
Internal radiation therapy, also known as brachytherapy, involves placing radioactive material directly into or near the tumor. This type of therapy is typically used to treat cancers in areas that are difficult to access with external radiation, such as the prostate or cervix.
There are two main types of internal radiation therapy:
- High-Dose-Rate (HDR) Brachytherapy: This type of therapy involves placing a small, temporary radioactive source directly into or near the tumor for a short period of time, typically for just a few minutes.
- Low-Dose-Rate (LDR) Brachytherapy: This type of therapy involves placing a small, permanent radioactive source directly into or near the tumor for a longer period of time, typically several days or weeks.
Systemic Radiation Therapy
Systemic radiation therapy, also known as radiopharmaceutical therapy, involves injecting a radioactive substance into the bloodstream. The substance then travels throughout the body, targeting and killing cancer cells wherever they may be.
There are several different types of systemic radiation therapy, including:
- Radioactive Iodine Therapy: This type of therapy is commonly used to treat thyroid cancer. The patient takes a radioactive form of iodine orally, which is then absorbed by the thyroid gland and kills cancer cells.
- Targeted Radionuclide Therapy: This type of therapy uses a radioactive substance that is specifically designed to target certain types of cancer cells while minimizing exposure to healthy tissue.
- Systemic Radiation Therapy For Bone Metastases: This type of therapy involves injecting a radioactive substance into the bloodstream to target cancer cells that have spread to the bones.
Other Types of Radiation Therapy
In addition to the three main types of radiation therapy, there are also some alternative types of radiation therapy that are gaining popularity in the world of cancer treatment for their incredible effectiveness.
- Proton Therapy: This type of therapy uses protons, which are positively charged particles, to deliver radiation to the tumor. Proton therapy is often used to treat tumors that are close to sensitive organs, such as the brain or spinal cord, as it can deliver radiation with more precision and accuracy than traditional radiation therapy.
“Proton therapy is a highly specialized, state-of-the-art form of radiation treatment,” The University of Kansas Cancer Center explains. “It precisely targets tumors and spares the surrounding tissues by using a pencil-thin beam of protons to deliver radiation directly to the tumor.”
Proton therapy is especially common in young children, as it decreases radiation exposure to other healthy, growing tissues (thereby reducing the risk of future complications).
- Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy (SBRT): This type of therapy involves delivering high doses of radiation to the tumor from many different angles. It is typically used to treat small tumors that are difficult to access with other types of radiation therapy.
- Electron Beam Therapy: This type of therapy uses high-energy electrons to deliver radiation to the tumor. It is often used to treat superficial cancers, such as skin cancer.
Which Type of Radiation Therapy Is Right For You?
The type of radiation therapy that is most appropriate for you will depend on several factors, including the location and size of your tumor, the stage of your cancer, and your overall health. Your radiation oncologist will work with you to determine the best treatment plan for your individual needs.
It is important to note that radiation therapy can have side effects, such as fatigue, skin irritation, and nausea. However, these side effects are usually temporary. They can almost always be managed (at least to some degree) with helpful medication and simple lifestyle changes.
Your radiation oncologist will work with you to minimize these side effects and ensure that you are as comfortable as possible throughout your treatment.