Radiation therapy
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Radiation therapy
  • Radiation therapy, radiation oncology, orradiotherapy, sometimes abbreviated to XRT or DXT, is the medical use of ionizing radiation, generally as part of cancer treatment to control or kill malignant cells. Radiation therapy may be curative in a number of types of cancer if they are localized to one area of the body. It may also be used as part of curative therapy, to prevent tumor recurrence after surgery to remove a primary malignant tumor (for example, early stages of breast cancer). Radiation therapy is synergistic with chemotherapy, and has been used before, during, and after chemotherapy in susceptible cancers.
    Radiation therapy is commonly applied to the cancerous tumor because of its ability to control cell growth. Ionizing radiation works by damaging the DNA of exposed tissue leading to cellular death. To spare normal tissues (such as skin or organs which radiation must pass through to treat the tumor), shaped radiation beams are aimed from several angles of exposure to intersect at the tumor, providing a much larger absorbed dose there than in the surrounding, healthy tissue. Besides the tumour itself, the radiation fields may also include the draining lymph nodes if they are clinically or radiologically involved with tumor, or if there is thought to be a risk of subclinical malignant spread. It is necessary to include a margin of normal tissue around the tumor to allow for uncertainties in daily set-up and internal tumor motion. These uncertainties can be caused by internal movement (for example, respiration and bladder filling) and movement of external skin marks relative to the tumor position.
    Radiation oncology is the medical specialty concerned with prescribing radiation, and is distinct from radiology, the use of radiation in medical imaging and diagnosis. Radiation may be prescribed by a radiation oncologist with intent to cure ("curative") or for adjuvant therapy. It may also be used as palliative treatment (where cure is not possible and the aim is for local disease control or symptomatic relief) or as therapeutic treatment (where the therapy has survival benefit and it can be curative). It is also common to combine radiation therapy with surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy or some mixture of the four. Most common cancer types can be treated with radiation therapy in some way. The precise treatment intent (curative, adjuvant, neoadjuvant, therapeutic, or palliative) will depend on the tumor type, location, and stage, as well as the general health of the patient. Total body irradiation (TBI) is a radiation therapy technique used to prepare the body to receive a bone marrow transplant. Brachytherapy, in which a radiation source is placed inside or next to the area requiring treatment, is another form of radiation therapy that minimizes exposure to healthy tissue during procedures to treat cancers of the breast, prostate and other organs.
    Radiation therapy has several applications in non-malignant conditions, such as the treatment of trigeminal neuralgia, acoustic neuromas, severe thyroid eye disease, pterygium, pigmented villonodular synovitis, and prevention of keloid scar growth, vascular restenosis, and heterotopic ossification. The use of radiation therapy in non-malignant conditions is limited partly by worries about the risk of radiation-induced cancers.
    Effect on different types of cancer
    Different cancers respond differently to radiation therapy.
    The response of a cancer to radiation is described by its radiosensitivity. Highly radiosensitive cancer cells are rapidly killed by modest doses of radiation. These include leukemias, most lymphomas and germ cell tumors. The majority of epithelial cancers are only moderately radiosensitive, and require a significantly higher dose of radiation (60-70Gy) to achieve a radical cure. Some types of cancer are notably radioresistant, that is, much higher doses are required to produce a radical cure than may be safe in clinical practice. Renal cell cancer and melanoma are generally considered to be radioresistant.
    It is important to distinguish the radiosensitivity of a particular tumor, which to some extent is a laboratory measure, from the radiation "curability" of a cancer in actual clinical practice. For example, leukemias are not generally curable with radiation therapy, because they are disseminated through the body. Lymphoma may be radically curable if it is localised to one area of the body. Similarly, many of the common, moderately radioresponsive tumors are routinely treated with curative doses of radiation therapy if they are at an early stage. For example: non-melanoma skin cancer, head and neck cancer, breast cancer, non-small cell lung cancer, cervical cancer, anal cancer, prostate cancer. Metastatic cancers are generally incurable with radiation therapy because it is not possible to treat the whole body.
    Before treatment, a CT scan is often performed to identify the tumor and surrounding normal structures. The patient is then sent for a simulation so that molds can be created to be used during treatment. The patient receives small skin marks to guide the placement of treatment fields.
    The response of a tumor to radiation therapy is also related to its size. For complex reasons, very large tumors respond less well to radiation than smaller tumors or microscopic disease. Various strategies are used to overcome this effect. The most common technique is surgical resection prior to radiation therapy. This is most commonly seen in the treatment of breast cancer with wide local excision or mastectomy followed by adjuvant radiation therapy. Another method is to shrink the tumor with neoadjuvant chemotherapy prior to radical radiation therapy. A third technique is to enhance the radiosensitivity of the cancer by giving certain drugs during a course of radiation therapy. Examples of radiosensiting drugs include: Cisplatin, Nimorazole, and Cetuximab.
    Historically, the three main divisions of radiation therapy are external beam radiation therapy (EBRT or XRT) or teletherapy, brachytherapy or sealed source radiation therapy, and systemic radioisotope therapy or unsealed source radiotherapy. The differences relate to the position of the radiation source; external is outside the body, brachytherapy uses sealed radioactive sources placed precisely in the area under treatment, and systemic radioisotopes are given by infusion or oral ingestion. Brachytherapy can use temporary or permanent placement of radioactive sources. The temporary sources are usually placed by a technique called afterloading. In afterloading a hollow tube or applicator is placed surgically in the organ to be treated, and the sources are loaded into the applicator after the applicator is implanted. This minimizes radiation exposure to health care personnel. Particle therapy is a special case of external beam radiation therapy where the particles are protons or heavier ions. Intraoperative radiation therapy or IORT is a special type of radiation therapy that is delivered immediately after surgical removal of the cancer. This method has been employed in breast cancer (TARGeted Introperative radiation therapy or TARGIT), brain tumors and rectal cancers.
    Brachytherapy seeds used to treat prostate cancer
    Brachytherapy (internal radiation therapy) is delivered by placing radiation source(s) inside or next to the area requiring treatment.
    Radioisotope therapy (RIT)
    Systemic radioisotope therapy is a form of targeted therapy. Targeting can be due to the chemical properties of the isotope such as radioiodine which is specifically absorbed by the thyroid gland a thousandfold better than other bodily organs.
    Side effects
    Radiation therapy is in itself painless. Many low-dose palliative treatments (for example, radiation therapy to bony metastases) cause minimal or no side effects, although short-term pain flare-up can be experienced in the days following treatment due to oedema compressing nerves in the treated area. Higher doses can cause varying side effects during treatment (acute side effects), in the months or years following treatment (long-term side effects), or after re-treatment (cumulative side effects). The nature, severity, and longevity of side effects depends on the organs that receive the radiation, the treatment itself (type of radiation, dose, fractionation, concurrent chemotherapy), and the patient.
    Most side effects are predictable and expected. Side effects from radiation are usually limited to the area of the patient's body that is under treatment. Modern radiation therapy aims to reduce side effects to a minimum and to help the patient understand and deal with side effects that are unavoidable.
    The main side effects reported are fatigue and skin irritation, like a mild to moderate sun burn. The fatigue often sets in during the middle of a course of treatment and can last for weeks after treatment ends. The irritated skin will heal, but may not be as elastic as it was before.
    Acute side effects
    Nausea and vomiting.
    This is not a general side effect of radiation therapy, and mechanistically is associated only with treatment of the stomach or abdomen (which commonly react a few hours after treatment), or with radiation therapy to certain nausing-producing structures in the head during treatment of certain head and neck tumors, most commonly the vestibules of the inner ears. As with any distressing treatment, some patients vomit immediately during radiotherapy, or even in anticipation of it, but this is considered a psychological response. Nausea for any reason can be treated with antiemetics.
    Damage to the epithelial surfaces.
    Epithelial surfaces may sustain damage from radiation therapy. Depending on the area being treated, this may include the skin, oral mucosa, pharyngeal, bowel mucosa and ureter. The rates of onset of damage and recovery from it depend upon the turnover rate of epithelial cells. Typically the skin starts to become pink and sore several weeks into treatment. The reaction may become more severe during the treatment and for up to about one week following the end of radiation therapy, and the skin may break down. Although this moist desquamation is uncomfortable, recovery is usually quick. Skin reactions tend to be worse in areas where there are natural folds in the skin, such as underneath the female breast, behind the ear, and in the groin.
    Mouth and throat sores
    If the head and neck area is treated, temporary soreness and ulceration commonly occur in the mouth and throat. If severe, this can affect swallowing, and the patient may need painkillers and nutritional support/food supplements. The esophagus can also become sore if it is treated directly, or if, as commonly occurs, it receives a dose of collateral radiation during treatment of lung cancer.
    Intestinal discomfort
    The lower bowel may be treated directly with radiation (treatment of rectal or anal cancer) or be exposed by radiation therapy to other pelvic structures (prostate, bladder, female genital tract). Typical symptoms are soreness, diarrhoea, and nausea.
    Swelling (edema or oedema)
    As part of the general inflammation that occurs, swelling of soft tissues may cause problems during radiation therapy. This is a concern during treatment of brain tumors and brain metastases, especially where there is pre-existing raised intracranial pressure or where the tumor is causing near-total obstruction of a lumen (e.g., trachea or main bronchus). Surgical intervention may be considered prior to treatment with radiation. If surgery is deemed unnecessary or inappropriate, the patient may receive steroids during radiation therapy to reduce swelling.
    The gonads (ovaries and testicles) are very sensitive to radiation. They may be unable to produce gametes followingdirect exposure to most normal treatment doses of radiation. Treatment planning for all body sites is designed to minimize, if not completely exclude dose to the gonads if they are not the primary area of treatment. Infertility can be efficiently avoided by sparing at least one gonad from radiation.
    Late side effects
    Late side effects occur months to years after treatment and are generally limited to the area that has been treated. They are often due to damage of blood vessels and connective tissue cells. Many late effects are reduced by fractionating treatment into smaller parts.
    Tissues which have been irradiated tend to become less elastic over time due to a diffuse scarring process.
    Epilation (hair loss) may occur on any hair bearing skin with doses above 1 Gy. It only occurs within the radiation field/s. Hair loss may be permanent with a single dose of 10 Gy, but if the dose is fractionated permanent hair loss may not occur until dose exceeds 45 Gy.
    The salivary glands and tear glands have a radiation tolerance of about 30 Gy in 2 Gy fractions, a dose which is exceeded by most radical head and neck cancer treatments. Dry mouth (xerostomia) and dry eyes (xerophthalmia) can become irritating long-term problems and severely reduce the patient's quality of life. Similarly, sweat glands in treated skin (such as the armpit) tend to stop working, and the naturally moist vaginal mucosa is often dry following pelvic irradiation.
    Lymphedema, a condition of localized fluid retention and tissue swelling, can result from damage to the lymphatic system sustained during radiation therapy. It is the most commonly reported complication in breast radiation therapy patients who receive adjuvant axillary radiotherapy following surgery to clear the axillary lymph nodes .
    Radiation is a potential cause of cancer, and secondary malignancies are seen in a very small minority of patients – usually less than 1/1000. It usually occurs 20 – 30 years following treatment, although some haematological malignancies may develop within 5 – 10 years. In the vast majority of cases, this risk is greatly outweighed by the reduction in risk conferred by treating the primary cancer. The cancer occurs within the treated area of the patient.
    Heart disease
    Radiation has potentially excess risk of death from heart disease seen after some past breast cancer RT regimens.
    Radiation proctitis
    This can involve long-term effects on the rectum including bleeding, diarrhoea and urgency and is associated with radiation therapy to pelvic organs. Pelvic radiation therapy can also cause radiation cystitis when the bladder is affected.
    Cumulative side effects
    Cumulative effects from this process should not be confused with long-term effects—when short-term effects have disappeared and long-term effects are subclinical, reirradiation can still be problematic.
    Effects on reproduction
    During the first two weeks after fertilization, radiation therapy is lethal but not teratogenic. High doses of radiation during pregnancy induce anomalies, impaired growth and mental retardation, and there may be an increased risk of childhood leukemia and other tumours in the offspring.
    In males previously having undergone radiotherapy, there appears to be no increase in genetic defects or congenital malformations in their children conceived after therapy. However, the use of assisted reproductive technologies and micromanipulation techniques might increase this risk.
    Effects on pituitary system
    Hypopituitarism commonly develops after radiation therapy for sellar and parasellar neoplasms, extrasellar brain tumours, head and neck tumours, and following whole body irradiation for systemic malignancies. Radiation-induced hypopituitarism mainly affects growth hormone and gonadal hormones.In contrast, adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) and thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) deficiencies are the least common among people with radiation-induced hypopituitarism. Changes in prolactin-secretion is usually mild, and vasopressin deficiency apppears to be very rare as a consequence of radiation.

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