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Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy, X-Ray therapy, or irradiation) is the use of a certain type of energy (called ionizing radiation) to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation damages the genetic material (DNA) within cancer cells. Radiation may be used to treat a variety of cancers including cancer of the brain, breast, cervix, larynx, lung, pancreas, prostate, skin, spine, stomach, uterus, or soft tissue. Radiation can also be used to treat leukemia and lymphoma (cancers of the blood-forming cells and lymphatic system, respectively).
By the time you see a radiation oncologist the precise diagnosis and extent of your cancer has usually been made. The radiation oncologist will need imaging to determine the exact location and size of your cancer so they can calculate your radiation therapy. Imaging is likely to include plain X-Rays, CT scans, and sometimes ultrasound or MRI scans.
Radiation can be given in several different ways depending on the indication. Most commonly external radiation is given. A very carefully calculated dose of radiation is tailored to the individual patient and their cancer. Patients are usually treated as outpatients and come for regular treatments where their cancers are externally irradiated. This is painless at the time of irradiation; the patient lies still whilst beams of radiation are targetted and delivered to their cancer. The other commonly used form of irradiation is internal irradiation. A radiation source is implanted into the body very close to or even within the target cancer. The effects of the irradiation are very local with the aim being only to damage the cancer itself.
Radiation oncologists are often part of a multidisciplinary team. Their role is to coordinate your radiotherapy, but they are often far more involved in your overall management. They will ask about your cancer, its diagnosis and treatment so far. Your symptoms, their duration and severity, other medical problems, medications, allergies and social history are all also important.
The examination will be focussed on the area that requires irradiation. A brief general examination is likely to be done before your radiation oncolcogist focuses on the area where you require treatment.
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