Radiation therapy is used to target tumors in specific locations. By delivering radiation to the tumor’s exact location, doctors hope to shrink its size. Sometimes, radiation takes place before surgery or chemotherapy is given to make the tumor small enough to remove, and other times, radiation takes place without the need for surgery.
Radiation therapy works by destroying or damaging rapidly growing cells, such as cancer cells. It damages cells only in the area of the body where the radiation is given. Unlike chemotherapy, radiation does not cause cell damage throughout the body. It can, however, damage healthy cells in the area being irradiated, but normal cells are better able to repair themselves.
Is Radiation Therapy Safe?
Radiation has been used successfully to treat patients for more than 100 years. In that time, many advances have been made to ensure that radiation therapy is safe and effective.
Before your child begins receiving radiation therapy, your radiation oncology team will carefully tailor their plan to make sure he or she receives safe and accurate treatment. Treatment will be carefully planned to target the cancer while avoiding healthy organs in the area. Special computers are also used to monitor and double-check the treatment machines to make sure the proper treatment is given. Radiation therapy will not make your child radioactive after treatment.
Delivering Radiation Therapy
Radiation therapy can be delivered in two ways, externally and internally. The majority of pediatric cancers are treated with external radiation.
During external beam radiation therapy, radiation beams come out of a machine called a linear accelerator. The beams are aimed at the tumor (either where it is or where it was before surgery and/or chemotherapy). You don’t see it, feel it, or taste it; it is completely invisible.
If your child needs to receive radiation, the radiation field (area) will be measured precisely and marked on your child’s body. This process is called “simulation.” Do not wash off the markings until after the radiation treatments are finished.
To minimize side effects, treatments are typically given five days a week, Monday through Friday, for a number of weeks. This allows enough radiation to get into the body to kill the cancer while giving healthy cells time to recover.