Cancer doctors usually treat cancer with radiation therapy, surgery or medications, including chemotherapy, hormonal therapy and/or biologic therapy, either alone or in combination. If your cancer can be treated with radiation, you will be referred to a radiation oncologist — a doctor who specializes in treating patients with radiation therapy. Your radiation oncologist will work with your primary doctor and other cancer specialists, such as surgeons and medical oncologists, to oversee your care. He or she will discuss the details of your cancer with you, the role of radiation therapy in your overall treatment plan and what to expect from your treatment.
How Does Radiation Therapy Work?
Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, is the use of various forms of radiation to safely and effectively treat cancer and other diseases. Radiation oncologists may use radiation to cure cancer, to control the growth of the cancer or to relieve symptoms, such as pain.
Radiation therapy works by damaging cells. Normal cells are able to repair themselves, whereas cancer cells cannot. New techniques also allow doctors to better target the radiation to protect healthy cells.
Sometimes radiation therapy is the only treatment a patient needs. At other times, it is only one part of a patient’s treatment. For example, prostate and larynx cancer are often treated with radiotherapy alone, while a woman with breast cancer may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
Radiation may also be used to make your primary treatment more effective. For example, you can be treated with radiation therapy before surgery to help shrink the cancer and allow less extensive surgery than would otherwise be needed, or you may be treated with radiation after surgery to destroy small amounts of cancer that may have been left behind.
A radiation oncologist may choose to use radiation therapy in a number of different ways. Sometimes the goal is to cure the cancer. In this case, radiation therapy may be used to:
- Destroy tumors that have not spread to other parts of your body.
- Reduce the risk that cancer will return after you undergo surgery or chemotherapy by killing small amounts of cancer that might remain.
Sometimes, the overall goal is to slow down the cancer as much as possible. In other cases, the goal is to reduce the symptoms caused by growing tumors and to improve your quality of life. When radiation therapy is administered for this purpose, it is called palliative care or palliation. In this instance, radiation may be used to:
- Shrink tumors that are interfering with your quality of life, such as a lung tumor that is causing shortness of breath.
- Relieve pain by reducing the size of your tumor.
It is important for you to discuss the goal of your treatment with your radiation oncologist.