Focusing high-energy radiation beams onto specific organs or parts of
organs to treat cancer is called radiation therapy.
High-energy radiation breaks up the genetic material inside cancerous cells,
killing them and stopping their spread. Because radiation is delivered specifically
to the area of the cancer, effects on healthy cells are minimized. Doctors
with specialized training in the use of radiation to treat cancer are called radiation oncologists. They often work in conjunction with
medical oncologists, internal medicine doctors who specialize in medical treatments
for cancer. The September 14, 2005, issue of JAMA includes an article about
radiation therapy and its use in treating prostate cancer.
Radiation therapy decreases the size of tumors and in some cases may
eradicate them. Radiation can be used to shrink tumors, allowing surgical
removal that would otherwise not be possible. Because tumors and their metastases (spread of cancer to other locations) can cause
pain, radiating those cancerous areas may significantly reduce pain. Radiation
therapy is often used for palliation (easing symptoms
from incurable cancer) and pain relief when other treatments are not possible
or have not been successful. Sometimes radiation and chemotherapy (use of drugs to kill cancer cells) are used together to maximize
chances of curing a person's cancer. Because each person's situation is unique,
you should discuss your personal cancer treatment plan with your doctors.
External radiation therapy consists of
beams of high-energy radiation directed to the affected area. It is painless,
and the treatments are usually given once a day over a period of weeks. The
area for radiation therapy is often marked with tiny tattoos smaller than
a freckle so that the treatment site is consistent throughout the therapy
Internal radiation (sometimes called brachytherapy) involves small amounts of radioactive material
placed into the tissue where the cancer has been detected. This can be delivered
by radioactive seeds or wires or by radioactive material placed into a body
cavity. Brachytherapy allows delivery of higher doses of radiation over a
shorter period because it stays in a small area near the cancerous tissue.
These depend on the site of the body being treated but may include
Skin redness near the radiated site
Infertility from radiation of the reproductive organs
Nausea, vomiting, or loss of appetite
Hair loss and dry mouth (if therapy is directed to the head or
Diarrhea when the bowel is treated
National Cancer Institute800/4-CANCERhttp://www.cancer.gov
American Cancer Society800/227-2345http://www.cancer.org
To find this and previous JAMA Patient Pages, go to the Patient Page
link on JAMA's Web site at http://www.jama.com. Many are available in English and Spanish. A Patient Page on preventing
cancer was published in the May 26, 2004, issue, and one on cancer clinical
trials was published in the June 9, 2004, issue.
Sources: American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute
The JAMA Patient Page is a public service of JAMA. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate
in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For
specific information concerning your personal medical condition, JAMA suggests that you consult your physician. This page may be photocopied
noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share
with patients. To purchase bulk reprints, call 718/946-7424.
Torpy JM, Burke A, Glass RM. Radiation Therapy. JAMA. 2005;294(10):1296. doi:10.1001/jama.294.10.1296