Radiation oncology is a medical specialty that involves the controlled use of radiation to treat cancer either for cure, or to reduce pain and other symptoms caused by cancer.
Radiation therapy is the term used to describe the actual treatment delivered by the radiation oncology team. Three unique specialist professions are involved in the practice of radiation oncology: Radiation Oncologists (doctors), Radiation Therapists and Radiation Oncology Medical Physicists.
These highly trained medical professionals use advanced technologies to deliver safe and effective radiation therapy to cancer patients with as few side effects as possible. Radiation therapy is a part of treatment in around 40% of all patients cured of cancer.
Why is radiation therapy important?
Radiation therapy can be applied safely to a wide range of cancers, and may be used alone or in conjunction with surgery, chemotherapy and other treatments. It is usually completely non-invasive, and accessed through out-patient clinics.
Radiation therapy is a highly cost effective cancer treatment. It costs only 6 cents out of each health-care dollar spent on treating cancer overall, yet it is vital in about 40% of all cancers that are cured1. With cancer being the leading cause of death world-wide2, investment in improving radiation oncology treatments, helping cancer patients access radiation therapy and building new treatment centres have never been more important.
What is radiation therapy?
In patients with advanced cancer, radiation therapy is commonly used to shrink tumours, and/or treat cancers that have spread. This provides relief from pain and other symptoms, which is vital for improving a cancer patient’s quality of life.
Many radiation therapy treatments are non-invasive and most are delivered in the outpatient setting, i.e. without being admitted to hospital. Radiation therapy often has minimal side effects. Each visit for treatment usually takes around 20 to 30 minutes. This means that most patients can continue with normal daily activities throughout treatment.
How does radiation therapy help patients?
- the type, size and location of the cancer
- whether the cancer has spread to other areas of the body
- the intention of treatment, e.g. symptom relief or cure of cancer
- whether radiation therapy is being used alone or with other forms of treatment
- the patient’s general health and personal preferences.
External beam radiation therapy often requires multiple short visits to the treatment centre over a few days to several weeks (usually Monday to Friday). Generally a small dose of radiation (known as a fraction) is delivered each time, adding up to the total dose. This minimises damage to healthy cells, as the cells can recover between treatments, and maximises the damage caused to cancerous cells. Treatments are painless and are similar to having an X-ray or CT scan. External Beam Radiation Therapy will not make patients radioactive. It is completely safe to be around other people, including pregnant women, while in a treatment phase.
Brachytherapy may require a short hospital stay to implant the radiation ‘seeds’ or sources into the body. After seeds are implanted, or brachytherapy session with removable sources is over, the patient can continue their normal daily activities. Depending on the type of brachytherapy used, patients may be required to follow some simple radiation safety guidelines for a short period to ensure that other people are not exposed to the radiation.
What are the side effects of radiation therapy
While some patients report no side effects at all, most people having radiation therapy will have some mild side effects during and/or just after treatment. Many patients experience fatigue which builds up throughout the treatment period, especially if the treatment course takes several weeks.
Depending on the site treated, other common side effects include skin redness and soreness, bowel upset, bladder symptoms, nausea, and sore mouth or throat. There are medications, creams and other measures to help with many of these common side effects. It is rare that radiation therapy treatment would need to be stopped or someone admitted to hospital as a result of side effects.
Organs and body parts outside the treated area will not be affected by radiation therapy. For example, the skin will not get red and sore if it is away from the area where the radiation is being targeted. Hair will only thin or fall out if the hair is in the area being treated. This means that only patients with cancer in the brain, skull or scalp will experience hair loss on their head.
The majority of side effects disappear completely within a few weeks of finishing radiation therapy.
A small number of patients experience more serious and/or long-term side effects. The treating doctor will discuss these side effects in detail with each person who might be recommended to have radiation therapy. Radiation therapy would only be prescribed if it is agreed that the overall benefits of the treatment outweigh the risk of more serious side effects.
As side effects largely depend on the location of the tumour in the body (either the original cancer and/or where the cancer has spread to), it is difficult to generalise about side effects. For more specific information about potential side effects of radiation therapy for some common cancer types click on the "Radiation Oncology Targeting Cancer" link below.
Patient Educational Video - Having Radiation Therapy at the Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre Westmead
Frequently Asked Questions
For more information please click on the following link of the Radiation Oncology Targeting Cancer website which is an initiative of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiology, Faculty of Radiation Oncology.
For further useful resources about radiation oncology please click on any of the following links:
- Cancer Council Australia: Understanding Radiotherapy
- Cancer Society: Radiation Treatment
- Cancer Australia: Clinical Trials
- Trans-Tasman Radiation Oncology Group: Clinical Trials
- Department of Health: Radiation Oncology Services
- NZ Ministry of Health