Radiation therapy is given to patients in a few different manners.  In this article we will discuss external-beam radiation therapy.  This method is done using a linear accelerator, otherwise known as a LINAC.  Depending on the type of cancer being treated, the size of the cancer, the location of the cancer and a few other factors radiation oncologist will prescribe the best manner in which radiation therapy should be given.

Linear accelerators deliver photon beams as x-rays or gamma rays.  A photon is a unit of light or other form of electromagnetic radiation, basically a bundle of energy.  The amount of energy in any given photon will vary.  Photons within gamma rays have the uppermost level of energy followed by x-rays.

LINAC form a stream of quick moving particles using electricity that generates amounts of elevated radiation to treat cancer.  Most often external radiation is given as part of an ongoing, daily treatment plan that lasts several weeks.  Exactly how often the radiation is delivered will depend on a number of aspects such as the total amount of radiation that is to be given.

There are several methods in delivering radiation therapy using external beams.  The most commonly used method by radiation oncologists includes 3-D conformal radiation therapy.  3D-CRT uses advanced computer software and highly developed treatment machines such as linear accelerators to deliver the radiation to the location it is needed without releasing radiation to areas outside of the treatment area.

Other methods of delivering radiation therapy using external beams include:

  • IMRT (Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy): IMRT uses a linear accelerator controlled by computers to release a specific dosage of radiation to an exact location within a tumor. This is an incredibly advanced form of high precision radiotherapy that uses high energy x-rays to destroy cancerous cells.  This form of treatment is usually given for about five to eight week, taking weekends off to allow non-cancerous cells to heal.  Each treatment takes about ten minutes to administer.
  • IGRT (Image-Guided Radiation Therapy): Imaging coordinates are utilized to direct the treatment of radiation therapy. The process uses both two and three dimensional images to guide the course of therapy.
  • Tomo Therapy: In tomo therapy a machine that combines IMRT and computed tomography. This treatment options allows radiation specialists to precisely target hard to reach tumors with powerful radiation beams.  The beam is delivered in slices while the patient moves unlike other forms of radiation therapy where the therapy is paused and the treatment is paused and the patient is then set up in a different manner to receive the radiation.
  • Stereotactic Radio surgery: Stereotactic radio surgery is mainly used for cancerous tumors in the head. The beam is aimed at the tumor from several directions around the head.  For this type of therapy to work properly it is important that the head is in the exact same position for treatment and that it does not move at all.

In our next installment we will look more in depth at internal radiation therapy and systematic radiation therapy.  The real talk in these installments will allow you as a patient to ask the most appropriate questions when discussing therapy options with your oncologist.

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