Not long ago, people who were not healthy enough to withstand surgery had few options if a tumor was discovered in their lung or brain.
Today, radiation therapy has evolved into an alternative to traditional surgery that can help these people. In the brain, it’s called stereotactic radiosurgery, even though no scalpel is involved. Outside the brain, it’s commonly known as stereotactic body radiotherapy. Computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance (MRI) and other advanced imaging tools are paired with a radiation machine to deliver high-energy X-rays to create a precision treatment.
Stereotactic radiation can be as effective as traditional surgery in select cases, says Michael Mix, MD, an assistant professor of radiation oncology at Upstate. “This allows us to better focus our radiation treatments and better visualize surrounding structures to make the treatments not only more effective, but safer,” he says.
It’s as much an alternative to traditional surgery as to traditional radiation therapy.
Traditional radiation therapy – which remains the appropriate treatment for many patients – involves multiple treatments per week over several weeks. Stereotactic radiation is generally given in fewer than five treatments, with tighter margins, allowing for less irradiation of normal, healthy cells.
How is stereotactic radiation different?
“If you can picture a number of radiation beams coming at a tumor from many different angles, only the area where all those beams cross would receive the high radiation dose,” Mix explains. Patients typically undergo fewer treatments than they would with traditional radiation therapy. In addition, real-time imaging of the target allows for a better ability to treat as little normal tissue as possible.
Mix is impressed with the precision of stereotactic radiosurgery. “We have the ability to actually track a tumor’s motion,” he says. “So, for example, if a lung tumor moves with the patient’s breathing, we’re able to watch that and account for that.”
Surgery and conventional radiation therapy remain excellent options for many patients. But a growing number are offered stereotactic radiation. Mix says doctors continue to determine new types of tumors – as well as other noncancerous problems – that can be treated effectively with stereotactic radiosurgery and stereotactic body radiotherapy.