In essence, radiation therapy works by forming electrically charged particles called ions and depositing energy into the cells or tissues it passes through. That energy can kill the cells outright or prompt genetic changes that cause cancer cell death.
Cancer patients 100 years ago received radiation to prevent the cancer from recurring in the spot where it originated, but they often had to deal with severe side effects from the extensive damage radiation did to healthy tissue.
Today, improved techniques allow for more precise radiation, which spares healthy tissue from radiation damage and makes the therapy much safer. “We have been able to show that radiation can actually improve the overall outcome and improve patient survival,” says Upstate radiation oncologist Anna Shapiro, MD.
She explains that radiation treatments are customized to patients based on the extent of their disease, whether and what type of surgery they’ve had, even the distance they must travel for treatment. And, imaging is available before every treatment, so doctors are more confident in exactly where radiation is delivered.
With more options, and greater precision, Shapiro says “the benefits of radiation therapy are much more apparent because the side effects have become much less.”
This article appears in the spring 2016 issue of Upstate Health magazine.