If you or a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, you may find it helpful to learn about radiation therapy, a commonly used cancer treatment. It is effective for treating almost all types of cancer in almost any part of the body. Half of all people with cancer are treated with radiation therapy, and it is a key reason why the number of people whose cancer is cured is rising every day.
When you are unfamiliar with radiation therapy, you may wonder how something that we are generally supposed to be avoiding in our day-to-day lives—radiation from the sun, microwaves or from dental X-rays—could be helpful in treating diseases. This type of treatment (of which there are many forms) harnesses the destructive power of high-energy rays or particles (radiation) to kill cancer cells, while taking great care to minimize harm to nearby healthy tissue.
“When radiation is used at high doses, it can be used to treat many cancers throughout the body,” explains Lynn Wilson, MD, a Yale Medicine radiation oncologist and vice chair of the Department of Therapeutic Radiology. Other terms used to describe radiation therapy include radiotherapy, X-ray therapy, cobalt therapy, electron beam therapy or irradiation.
Specialized equipment helps doctors to aim high doses of radiation at tumors or areas of the body where there is disease, explains Dr. Wilson. The goal is to target cancerous cells while preserving as many healthy cells that surround tumors as possible.