Learn about how radiation is used to treat cancer. Both external beam and internal (brachytherapy/bead) radiation treatments are described. To learn more …
(pleasant tones)
(lush string music)
(subdued piano music)
>> [narrator]
Everyday and everywhere,
we are surrounded
by radiation.
The light we use
to see, heat,
radio waves, and the
microwaves we use to cook
are all forms
of radiation.
The sun, TV remote controls,
and even some minerals
are all sources
of radiation.
Radiation is also a
common cancer treatment.
In fact, more than half the
people diagnosed with cancer
get some type of
radiation therapy.
These treatments all have
one thing in common–
they all use high-energy
waves to kill cancer cells.
How radiation therapy is
used depends on the cancer
and the individual
>> When we meet
in consultation,
we'll talk about how
we use radiation
and when we
use radiation.
And actually,
most people,
as a part of their
treatment for cancer,
receive radiation
in some form.
Now, radiation can be used
alone, as in prostate cancer,
or, in breast cancer
for instance,
we use it with surgery
and chemotherapy.
>> [narrator]
Doctors use radiation therapy
to treat cancer because
it is good at shrinking
and destroying tumors
without causing much damage
to normal tissues.
The high-energy waves
pass through the body
to reach
the cancer.
Cancer cells divide
faster than normal cells
and don't obey the
rules of the body.
When the cancer cells are hit
with high-energy radiation,
they are damaged.
If they don't
die right away,
they die the next time
they try to divide.
As the cancer cells continue
to die, the tumor shrinks.
Most normal cells don't
die with radiation therapy
because they are
not dividing,
and they are better able
to repair themselves.
>> Basically it comes down
to external radiation
or internal radiation.
Now, external radiation
is when we use
a very fancy
X-ray machine,
and aim an X-ray into the body
from away from the body.
That's the majority
of what we do.
But oftentimes,
we have the choice
of using internal
which sometimes is called
"brachytherapy," too.
Now, internal radiation is
when we use radioactivity
and place it near to, or into,
a tumor within the body.
>> [narrator]
The decision about which type
of radiation to use is
based on the type of cancer,
the location
of the cancer,
whether or not the
cancer has spread,
the current health
of the patient,
other treatments the patient
is on or will be on.
Radiation for medical
use is usually produced
by sources inside
of machines.
The machines focus the
radiation and create a beam
that can be aimed
at the cancer.
The radiation coming
from the machine
cannot be
seen or felt.
In most cases, external
radiation is a local treatment.
It is aimed at a specific
part of the body.
Doctors plan
the treatments
so the radiation is
aimed at the cancer,
and has the smallest possible
effect on healthy cells.
Your skin may be marked
with a special ink
that will remain
during the treatment.
The marks allow
technicians to position you
the same way
each time,
and make sure that
the radiation
is always hitting
the right spot.
>> Radiation doctors have
a couple tools we use
to help treat patients
with X-rays
as accurately
as possible.
One of these
tools is a mask.
This is just a plastic shield
that they put over your head,
and, for instance, if you
had a tumor of the mouth,
we have to make sure that it
stays in the same position
every day during treatment,
and the mask does this for us.
Again, it's only used
sometimes, in some patients,
just for a couple
minutes every day.
Another tool for positioning
a patient is a mold.
For instance, if you were being
treated for prostate cancer,
we would make a
mold of your legs,
just so your legs are in
the same position every day.
Again, this is something that's
just used during radiation
and, of course,
it's not painful,
but it just helps us
be as good as we can
as we deliver the radiation
on a daily basis.
>> [narrator]
External radiation therapy
often requires a
series of treatments.
It is usually given
five days a week,
Monday through Friday,
for 2 to 10 weeks,
depending on the type of
cancer and its location.
Sometimes, treatments might
be given twice a day.
The treatment usually
takes less than an hour,
and you do not need to
stay in the hospital.
Before treatment, a radiation
therapist will greet you
and may ask you
to put on a gown.
The therapist will then take
you into a treatment room
and guide you through
the treatment.
>> All right,
Mrs. Johnson,
this is gonna be
the treatment room
that you're treated
in every day, okay?
So what's gonna
go on today
is I'm gonna set
you up to the marks
that we have
on your sides.
I'm gonna lower your pants
down to about mid-thigh,
and your underwear, and
I'll keep you covered
the whole time,
So once I have you lying
down flat on your back,
this machine is gonna
rotate around you.
The X-ray imagers are gonna
come out to the sides,
and we're gonna
take some X-rays.
The doctor is then going
to check those X-rays
for positioning and make
sure that everything
is exactly the way it was
when you were planned.
And then, we will start your
treatment after that, okay?
>> Okay.
>> So it will only take
about 20 to 25 minutes.
>> Okay.
>> All right, so I'll go
ahead and take your jacket
and we can
get started.
>> [narrator]
While you're being
positioned on the machine,
your legs or feet
may be secured
to prevent
accidental movements.
>> Okay, Mrs. Johnson,
this looks perfect.
This is exactly how
you're gonna be sitting
every single day, okay?
>> Okay.
>> All right, and let's
just see these marks, okay?
Everything looks good.
You kept your marks
well for us, okay?
I'm gonna go ahead
and lift you up
and get you
lined up.
>> [narrator]
After you are put in position,
you will need to
stay very still
to make sure that the
radiation is going
to the exact same
place each time.
But you do not need
to hold your breath.
>> Okay, Mrs. Johnson, I've
got everything lined up
right where
I want it.
Just want you to hold
still from here on out.
What's gonna happen first is
we're gonna take those X-rays,
and I'll be talking to
you over the loudspeaker.
I have two cameras watching
you and I can hear you, too.
So if you have any problems, you
just raise your hands, okay?
>> Okay.
>> And I'll come back
in the room.
I'll let you know before
we start the treatment.
(machine whirring gently)
Okay, Mrs. Johnson, the doctor's
reviewed all the images
and everything
looks great.
We're gonna go ahead and
start your treatment now.
(machine whirring gently)
We're almost finished,
Mrs. Johnson, just hold still.
You're doing great.
Okay, Mrs. Johnson,
you can relax your arms.
We're all finished.
You did great.
(soft upbeat music)
>> [narrator]
Internal radiation therapy
uses radiation that comes
from tiny radioactive sources
placed inside
the body.
The radiation
source can look
like a small seed,
pill, or wire.
The implants are placed in or
around the cancer by a doctor.
If needed, you
will be asleep,
or the area will be
numbed while this is done.
Although the radiation
is close to the target
and does not
travel very far,
some normal cells are damaged
and side effects may occur.
>> When we use
internal radiation,
we put it in temporarily
in some cases,
or we'll put it in permanently
and it just stays forever.
Now, the radiation
wears off,
and then what's left behind
is very harmless to a patient.
>> [narrator]
Internal radiation therapy
is used for cancers of the
head, neck, breast, uterus,
cervix, prostate,
gallbladder, esophagus,
eye, lung,
and some others.
Each type of internal radiation
treatment is different,
so it is important
to ask questions
about any
treatment plan.
In most types of
radiation therapy,
the area exposed to
radiation is limited.
The possible side effects depend
on the area being treated.
>> Radiation on a daily
basis is actually painless.
It's just like getting
a chest X-ray,
you don't
feel a thing.
But during treatment,
the kind of side effects
you might experience, say, if
we were treating the prostate,
would be urinating
more frequently,
or going to the bathroom more
frequently, or getting tired,
and that's just the
effect of the buildup
of radiation
in that area.
>> [narrator]
Some common side effects
for almost all types
of radiation therapy
include skin changes where
the radiation is aimed.
These might include itching,
dryness, blistering, or a rash.
You might also feel fatigued
or unusually tired.
Side effects usually go away
within four to six weeks
after the end
of treatment.
Other short-term side
effects that may occur,
depending on the
area being treated
include diarrhea, hair loss
at the treatment area,
mouth dryness
or mouth sores,
nausea and
loss of sexual desire,
erectile dysfunction,
swelling of areas
being treated,
bladder problems, such
as bladder irritation
that may cause you to
urinate frequently.
Some possible
long-term side effects,
again, depending on
the area being treated,
might be infertility
and sexual problems,
lymphedema or swelling
of an arm or leg,
usually when combined
with surgery,
joint and organ problems
including pain and damage,
second cancers.
Whether you are
getting internal
or external
radiation therapy,
it is important for you to
discuss your treatment plan
with your doctor.
You should ask your
doctor what to expect,
how to take care of yourself
during and after treatment,
precautions you
may need to take,
and the benefits and
risks of the treatment.
For more information
on radiation therapy,
please visit the
American Cancer Society
website at
(inspiring music)

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