Many patients going through radiation therapy don’t truly understand how their tumors are shrunk or the cancer cells killed.  It is a complex procedure that many physicians are not able to simplify for patience just learning they have cancer.  It is a term that is commonly tossed out in the treatment plan of various cancers; it is crucial that individuals understand exactly what the treatment they are being prescribed will look like.  In this ongoing series on radiation therapy we will continue to look into the answers to questions many patients and loves ones are asking.

How does radiation kill cancer cells and shrink tumors using various radiation therapy and different techniques?

In radiation therapy the actual DNA of the cancer cells and tumors is damaged.  DNA refers the combination of unique molecules each of us is made from.  The molecules are carried within the cells.  The cells are actually carrying the genetic information, or molecules, that we pass between generations.  Individuals are created from a combination of cells that carry the molecules that carry our unique database of genetics; this genetic database is what radiation therapy is in charge of destroying.

This can occur in two different ways.  Radiation therapy can damage DNA directly thus creating a cell that can no longer repair itself or divide leading to the death of the cell.  Once the cell is damaged and dies it is then broken down into the body and naturally eliminated.

How does radiation therapy only kill those cells that are cancerous?

It doesn’t; that is the most truthful answer when someone asks how radiation therapy knows only to damage the cancerous cells.  In truth healthy normal cells can be damaged which leads to unpleasant side effects.  When planning for treatment the damage that can potentially be done to healthy cells is accounted for.

There is a certain amount of radiation that normal, healthy tissue can safely receive before any real side effects are reported.  Each part of the body is different and therefor a different treatment is used as called for.  External radiation using linear accelerator equipment may be used for more sensitive areas where as internal radiation, brachytherapy, is used on areas where tissue is hardier.  Knowing this information allows doctors to specifically target radiation throughout therapy.

From here our next installment will take a deeper look into why doctors chose to use radiation therapy over other treatments for cancer as well as how a plan is individualized to each specific patient.  As in treatment options of many diseases there is not a one size fits all treatment plan for cancer.  Linear accelerator equipment treating cancer through external radiation may work well with patients of a certain age with certain cancers where it would be ineffective for others.  Our next installment will further look into the answers to why and how questions in radiation therapy.

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