When a patient is diagnosed with cancer, it is usually a turning point in their life. Few forget the initial shock and disbelief after the diagnosis, as well as the fear and the feeling of helplessness that is experienced. In between all these emotions there are usually further tests that must be done and an urgency to start treatment – and to start experiencing the haven of care and empathy that is the oncology unit.
Treatment of cancer can be labelled curative (when the treatment is aimed at the remission of the cancer and the healing of the patient is possible ) or palliative (when the treatment is aimed at ensuring symptom control and focuses on improving quality of life of the patient ) cure is not possible patients can live long and well before they pass on.
The oncology team will decide on the best possible treatment for you, depending on the type of cancer and the stage it is in. We talked about this coordination of care in this post and about the teams who will take care of you in this one.
One of the ways in which your cancer may be treated is though radiotherapy. This is the use of high-energy x-ray beams that can penetrate tissue, causing cell damage and cell death and reducing the cancer growth.
Normal cells are also influenced by radiation, but most of them recover from the effect of radiation. Normal tissue still needs to be protected from radiation as far as possible so the total amount of radiation is limited to the dosage normal tissue can tolerate.
Every patient’s treatment is planned individually with the use of highly sophisticated 3-D computer technology. Normal tissue is protected from radiation beams when possible and the newer radiation machines have built-in shielding that is very sensitive and effectively protects the patients sensitive organs.
The aim of radiotherapy is to kill cancer cells with as little risk as possible to normal cells. Radiotherapy can be used in the treatment of different kinds of cancer in nearly any part of the body.
Radiation, like surgery, is a local treatment. It influences only the tissue in the specific area of the body that is being radiated.
Radiation is often used in combination with surgery to treat cancer. Radiation can be given before surgery to shrink a cancer mass, this may enable them to remove all cancer tissue by using less extensive surgical methods. Radiotherapy can also be given after surgery to reduce the chances of regrowth of any remaining cancer cells.
In some cases radiation is used in combination with chemotherapy. The radiation can be given before, during or after chemotherapy. Combination therapy is tailored carefully to suit each individual patient’s needs according to the type of cancer, the location and the disease stage.
Where a cure isn’t a realistic option anymore, radiation is often used to shrink cancer masses and in doing so to relieve pressure, pain and other symptoms associated with uncontrolled cancer growth. This treatment is known as palliation (symptom relief). Most cancer patients find that they can lead a better quality of life after radiation for problematic symptoms.
Next week we will explain what to expect when you go for your radiotherapy treatment.