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Radiation Therapy

How Does Radiation Therapy Work?

Last modified: 
24/04/2012 - 12:39

Contributing Author: Guy Slowik FRCS

Cancer cells reproduce faster than normal cells in the body. Radiation therapy targets these rapidly dividing cells. The radiation reacts with water in the cells and this reaction damages the DNA or genetic material in the cell that controls cell growth.

Normally, cells can repair themselves and continue growing. But since cancer cells can't repair themselves as easily, they die. Although normal cells are also affected, they repair themselves more effectively.

Radiation therapy has undergone major advances in recent years. The use of computers, highly sophisticated equipment and new understandings of how cancer cells work have made radiation safer than ever.

Doctors are extremely careful to limit damage to healthy tissue by:

  • Precisely targeting radiation beams directly at the cancerous area
  • Dividing treatments into several small sessions, called fractions
  • Making sure equipment is in top working order
  • Using the minimal effective dose

Patients usually receive external beam therapy for five days in a row, with a rest over the weekend. Receiving small frequent doses with brief rests limits damage to healthy cells, while effectively destroying cancer cells.

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From Andrew Maynard - Chair of the University of Michigan Department of Environmental Health Sciences, with help from David Faulkner - 2013 Master of Public Health graduate.