COVID-19 Updates From St. Joseph’s/Candler: Find out the latest on visitor restrictions and other measures we are taking to protect patients and co-workers. Learn More

What is radiation therapy?

Jan 17, 2019


Advances in technology improve treatment options and outcomes and reduced side effects

A lot has changed in cancer treatment over the last several decades. Advances in technology have vastly improved treatment options and side effects.

One area of improvement is in radiation therapy.

Dr SchulerRadiation therapy is the use of X-rays to treat cancer, describes Dr. John Schuler, radiation oncologist with the Nancy N. and J.C. Lewis Cancer & Research Pavilion. Radiation therapy kills cancer cells or slows their growth so they stop dividing or die. When the damaged cells die, they are broken down and removed by the body.

Radiation has been used to treat patients for more than 100 years. Many advances have been made to ensure radiation therapy is safe and effective.

“Absolutely, radiation therapy is safe,” Dr. Schuler says. “We have advanced technologies in place to ensure patient safety. We also do a lot of planning and quality assurance.”

Still, there are patients that worry about radiation therapy. Some are concerned with skin burns because they may have had a grandparent who had radiation 20 years ago and suffered burns. Others are worried they will be radioactive when they go home. Modern technologies have dramatically decreased these risks.

“You will not have radiation in you following an X-ray,” Dr. Schuler says. “Modern technology, TrueBeam for example, generates high energy X-rays that lowers your risk of skin toxicity. That’s much less of an issue now thanks to modern technology.”

Related Article: TrueBeam radiation technology allows for more accurate, quicker cancer treatment 

As with any medical procedure, side effects are possible and vary depending on the type of cancer being treated. Some common side effects may include fatigue, skin changes or loss or change in appetite. Dr. Schuler says most side effects are mild to moderate in nature.

Having a general idea about radiation therapy may help ease any concerns you may have. Let’s take a closer look.

Do all cancer patients require radiation therapy?

About 60 to 70 percent of cancer patients are treated with radiation. At the Lewis Cancer & Research Pavilion, the most common cancer types treated with radiation therapy are breast, lung and prostate, Dr. Schuler says.

“Radiation plays a role in most cancers at some point, but not every stage,” Dr. Schuler says. “Radiation is also good for palliative care and pain management.”

Palliative radiation therapy helps manage a patient’s symptoms. Oftentimes, palliative radiotherapy is used to reduce pain to  help manage or improve a patient’s quality of life.

Related Article: How CyberKnife technology is helping patients with non-cancerous conditions

CyberKnife blogThe LCRP follows a multi-disciplinary approach to treating individual cancers. Each patient’s case is reviewed by a team of medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, surgeons, nurses, dietitians and others to determine the best course of treatment.

If a patient needs radiation therapy, an additional team of radiation oncologists, radiation nurses and therapists walk the patient through every step of the process and answer any questions. The team develops a treatment plan that is thoroughly reviewed, and a piece of measuring equipment is used in a test run to ensure the plan is safe and accurate before the patient begins treatment.

“It’s very much a team effort,” Dr. Schuler says. “The staff does a great job to ensure patients are treated quickly and accurately.”

How will I receive radiation therapy?

There are two main types of radiation therapy: external beam and internal. Internal radiation therapy is when the source of radiation is placed inside your body. This is also referred to as brachytherapy and may be recommended to treat cancers of the head and neck, breast, cervix or prostate.

External beam radiation therapy is more commonly used and comes from a machine that aims radiation at your cancer. The LCRP has two of the world’s most advanced radiation technologies with the CyberKnife and TrueBeam devices.

TrueBeam blogThe CyberKnife is one of the most advanced radiation technologies available in the world. The machine’s robotic movements allow tumors to be precisely targeted with more powerful radiation to treat previously inoperable tumors. CyberKnife is commonly used to treat small tumors in the lungs, brain and prostate, Dr. Schuler says.

And don’t let the name fool you. The CyberKnife makes no incisions. The pinpoint precision of the CyberKnife helps to minimize damage to healthy tissue surrounding the tumor. Its accuracy is measured in sub-millimeters.

TrueBeam is an advancement of traditional radiation machines, delivering a radiation beam that targets cancer and keeps exposure to healthy cells to a minimum. No incisions are made as the non-invasive TrueBeam rotates around the patient to deliver the radiation dose from different angles. TrueBeam is the workhouse of the Radiation Oncology Center, Dr. Schuler says, as the bulk of cancer patients are treated on TrueBeam.

While TrueBeam and CyberKnife have many similarities and both are effective treating all types of cancers, there are a few differences. One being range. TrueBeam rotates around the patient and can reach many different angles. CyberKnife, however, has more freedom of movement with its flexible robotic arms, treating hard-to-reach tumors.

How long will I need radiation therapy?

The number of radiation sessions varies from patient to patient and is typically dictated by the location of the tumor and stage of the disease, Dr. Schuler says.

Some cancers treated via CyberKnife can be as short as three to five treatment sessions. Breast cancers treated on TrueBeam typically require three to six weeks of radiation therapy. Prostate cancers – not treated on CyberKnife – require five to nine weeks, and advanced-stage lung cancers can require up to six weeks of treatment.

It is important to note that each case is individualized and treatment plans are determined based on a number of things including cancer type, stage and tumor size and location.

Related Article: Lifelong law enforcement agent becomes first prostate cancer patient to be treated with the CyberKnife

While it’s natural to have worries going into any cancer treatment, you can be sure at the LCRP your medical team will work with you to develop the best possible plan to ensure you are getting the most accurate and quickest form of treatment.

“I assure our patients that we have a great team of therapists, nurses and others that walk through every step of the process with you,” Dr. Schuler says. “We do everything we can to get you treated quickly and accurately.”

The LCRP has a Radiation Oncology Center at its main campus in Savannah and also in the Hilton Head/Bluffton region. For more information about services available, visit our website.

How can we help you?