For cancer patients, treatment options are usually limited to choosing between radiation therapy and homeopathic treatment. Most patients are hesitant to choose radiation therapy because of the potential dangers radiation exposure pose. But does radiation therapy actually work?
How Radiation Therapy Works
All radiation therapies do essentially the same thing: damage the DNA within the cancer cells, rendering them unable to replicate, which halts the growth of the tumor where it is then whisked away by natural body processes. The radiation is given in a series of sessions, each time shrinking the size of the tumor until it disappears entirely.
The type of radiation therapy a patient is given is highly dependent on the stage and location of the cancer cells. Other factors include proximity to other organs and tissues, the general health of the patient, and whether the patient will have other areas treated with radiation therapy as well.
Radiation therapy can take some time. The reason being that the radiation doesn’t just damage the cancerous cells, it damages normal cells as well. A radiation oncologist or radiologist is very methodical in choosing the exact type and path of the radiation to minimize collateral damage inflicted to other tissues and organs. For example, treating bladder cancer puts the patients’ genitals at risk, which could lead to infertility.
Types of Radiation Therapy
There are two typical methods of radiation treatment: outside the body (external-beam radiation) and inside the body (internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy). External-beam radiation focuses radioactive particles onto the cancerous area. The type of particle used depends on the location and distance from the skin. A deeper location will require smaller, more radioactive particles in order to pass through that many layers of tissue.
With internal radiation therapy, a “pellet” or radioactive substance is placed in or near the cancerous cells, giving off radiation over time. The pellet can be a low-dose rate, which is left in the body and gives off continuous low-dose radiation for a small period of time, or a high-dose rate, which gives off high rates of radiation and is only left in the body for the duration of each session.
Radiation Therapy and Cancer
Now that you know everything about radiation therapy, here’s the answer to if radiation therapy makes cancer worse. Radiation therapy actually can make cancer worse in a different ways. First, the radiation being used for treatment might accidentally cause new mutations in living tissue, causing second primary cancer later in life.
The other way is that it might cause the current tumor to become more malignant. A tumor is comprised of a large variety of cancerous cells with different functions. One of the most crucial types, cancer stem cells (CSC’s), are the foundation for all of the other cancer cells. They can either replicate into more CSC’s, or can replicate into a “daughter cell” that can be differentiated into a highly specialized cancer cell.
Unfortunately, CSC’s are highly resistant to the traditional radiation therapy that is given to most patients. CSC’s comprise on average .01% of the tumor, making them difficult to target specifically. Additionally, CSC’s replicate much slower than the rest of the differentiated cells, so the traditional method of targeting the DNA and ruining the replication process is less effective. Of those that do get targeted, the fraction that survives gains an immunity to the treatment, making them stronger and more likely to replicate.
Fortunately, advances in medicine and technology are minimizing the risks involved with radiation therapy. Radiation therapy isn’t perfect, but the reality is that it’s the best option for cancer patients. With more and more of battles with cancer ending up victorious, perhaps somewhere in the near future the war against cancer will finally be over. Our Rosetta radiologists are here to help you every step of the way through radiation therapy!