Radiation therapy (in North America), or radiotherapy (in the UK and Australia) also called radiation oncology, and sometimes abbreviated to XRT, is the medical use of ionizing radiation as part of cancer treatment to control malignant cells (not to be confused with radiology, the use of radiation in medical imaging and diagnosis). Radiotherapy may be used for curative or adjuvant cancer treatment. It is used as palliative treatment (where cure is not possible and the aim is for local disease control or symptomatic relief) or as therapeutic treatment (where the therapy has survival benefit and it can be curative). Total body irradiation (TBI) is a radiotherapy technique used to prepare the body to receive a bone marrow transplant. Radiotherapy has several applications in non-malignant conditions, such as the treatment of trigeminal neuralgia, severe thyroid eye disease, pterygium, pigmented villonodular synovitis, prevention of keloid scar growth, and prevention of heterotopic ossification. The use of radiotherapy in non-malignant conditions is limited partly by worries about the risk of radiation-induced cancers.
Radiotherapy is used for the treatment of malignant tumors (cancer), and may be used as the primary therapy. It is also common to combine radiotherapy with surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy or some mixture of the three. Most common cancer types can be treated with radiotherapy in some way. The precise treatment intent (curative, adjuvant, neoadjuvant, therapeutic, or palliative) will depend on the tumour type, location, and stage, as well as the general health of the patient.
Radiation therapy is commonly applied to the cancerous tumour. The radiation fields may also include the draining lymph nodes if they are clinically or radiologically involved with tumour, or if there is thought to be a risk of subclinical malignant spread. It is necessary to include a margin of normal tissue around the tumour to allow for uncertainties in daily set-up and internal tumor motion. These uncertainties can be caused by internal movement (for example, respiration and bladder filling) and movement of external skin marks relative to the tumour position.
To spare normal tissues (such as skin or organs which radiation must pass through in order to treat the tumour), shaped radiation beams are aimed from several angles of exposure to intersect at the tumour, providing a much larger absorbed dose there than in the surrounding, healthy tissue.
Radiation therapy works by damaging the DNA of cells. The damage is caused by a photon, electron, proton, neutron, or ion beam directly or indirectly ionizing the atoms which make up the DNA chain. Indirect ionization happens as a result of the ionization of water, forming free radicals, notably hydroxyl radicals, which then damage the DNA. In the most common forms of radiation therapy, most of the radiation effect is through free radicals. Because cells have mechanisms for repairing DNA damage, breaking the DNA on both strands proves to be the most significant technique in modifying cell characteristics. Because cancer cells generally are undifferentiated and stem cell-like, they reproduce more, and have a diminished ability to repair sub-lethal damage compared to most healthy differentiated cells. The DNA damage is inherited through cell division, accumulating damage to the cancer cells, causing them to die or reproduce more slowly.
One of the major limitations of radiotherapy is that the cells of solid tumors become deficient in oxygen. Solid tumors can outgrow their blood supply, causing a low-oxygen state known as hypoxia. Oxygen is a potent radiosensitizer, increasing the effectiveness of a given dose of radiation by forming DNA-damaging free radicals. Tumor cells in a hypoxic environment may be as much as 2 to 3 times more resistant to radiation damage than those in a normal oxygen environment. Much research has been devoted to overcoming this problem including the use of high pressure oxygen tanks, blood substitutes that carry increased oxygen, hypoxic cell radiosensitizers such as misonidazole and metronidazole, and hypoxic cytotoxins, such as tirapazamine. There is also interest in the fact that high-LET (linear energy transfer) particles such as carbon or neon ions may have an antitumor effect which is less dependent of tumor oxygen because these particles act mostly via direct damage.
The amount of radiation used in radiation therapy is measured in gray (Gy), and varies depending on the type and stage of cancer being treated. For curative cases, the typical dose for a solid epithelial tumor ranges from 60 to 80 Gy, while lymphoma tumors are treated with 20 to 40 Gy.
Preventative (adjuvant) doses are typically around 45 - 60 Gy in 1.8 - 2 Gy fractions (for Breast, Head and Neck cancers respectively.) Many other factors are considered by radiation oncologists when selecting a dose, including whether the patient is receiving chemotherapy, whether radiation therapy is being administered before or after surgery, and the degree of success of surgery.
Delivery parameters of a prescribed dose are determined during treatment planning (part of dosimetry). Treatment planning is generally performed on dedicated computers using specialized treatment planning software. Depending on the radiation delivery method, several angles or sources may be used to sum to the total necessary dose. The planner will try to design a plan that delivers a uniform prescription dose to the tumor and minimizes dose to surrounding healthy tissues.
The total dose is fractionated (spread out over time) for several important reasons. Fractionation allows normal cells time to recover, while tumor cells are generally less efficient in repair between fractions. Fractionation also allows tumor cells that were in a relatively radio-resistant phase of the cell cycle during one treatment to cycle into a sensitive phase of the cycle before the next fraction is given. Similarly, tumor cells that were chronically or acutely hypoxic (and therefore more radioresistant) may reoxygenate between fractions, improving the tumor cell kill. Fractionation regimes are individualised between different radiotherapy centres and even between individual doctors. In North America, Australia, and Europe, the typical fractionation schedule for adults is 1.8 to 2 Gy per day, five days a week. In some cancer types, prolongation of the fraction schedule over too long can allow for the tumor to begin repopulating, and for these tumor types, including head-and-neck and cervical squamous cell cancers, radiation treatment is preferably completed within a certain amount of time. For children, a typical fraction size may be 1.5 to 1.8 Gy per day, as smaller fraction sizes are associated with reduced incidence and severity of late-onset side effects in normal tissues.
In some cases, two fractions per day are used near the end of a course of treatment. This schedule, known as a concomitant boost regimen or hyperfractionation, is used on tumors that regenerate more quickly when they are smaller. In particular, tumors in the head-and-neck demonstrate this behavior.
One of the best-known alternative fractionation schedules is Continuous Hyperfractionated Accelerated Radiotherapy (CHART). CHART, used to treat lung cancer, consists of three smaller fractions per day. Although reasonably successful, CHART can be a strain on radiation therapy departments.
Implants can be fractionated over minutes or hours, or they can be permanent seeds which slowly deliver radiation until they become inactive.
The response of a cancer to radiation is described by its radiosensitivity. Highly radiosensitive cancer cells are rapidly killed by modest doses of radiation. These include leukaemias, most lymphomas and germ cell tumours. The majority of epithelial cancers are only moderately radiosensitive, and require a significantly higher dose of radiation (60-70Gy) to achieve a radical cure. Some types of cancer are notably radioresistant, that is, much higher doses are required to produce a radical cure than may be safe in clinical practice. Renal cell cancer and melanoma are generally considered to be radioresistant.
It is important to distinguish the radiosensitivity of a particular tumour, which to some extent is a laboratory measure, from the radiation "curability" of a cancer in actual clinical practice. For example, leukaemias are not generally curable with radiotherapy, because they are disseminated though the body. Lymphoma may be radically curable if it is localised to one area of the body. Similarly, many of the common, moderately radioresponsive tumours are routinely treated with curative doses of radiotherapy if they are at an early stage. For example: non-melanoma skin cancer, head and neck cancer, non-small cell lung cancer, cervical cancer, anal cancer, prostate cancer. Metastatic cancers are generally incurable with radiotherapy because it is not possible to treat the whole body.
Before treatment, a CT scan is often performed to identify the tumor and surrounding normal structures. The patient is then sent for a simulation so that molds can be created to be used during treatment. The patient receives small skin marks to guide the placement of treatment fields.
The response of a tumour to radiotherapy is also related to its size. For complex reasons, very large tumours respond less well to radiation than smaller tumours or microscopic disease. Various strategies are used to overcome this effect. The most common technique is surgical resection prior to radiotherapy. This is most commonly seen in the treatment of breast cancer with wide local excision or mastectomy followed by adjuvant radiotherapy. Another method is to shrink the tumour with neoadjuvant chemotherapy prior to radical radiotherapy. A third technique is to enhance the radiosensitivity of the cancer by giving certain drugs during a course of radiotherapy. Examples of radiosensiting drugs include: Cisplatin, Nimorazole, and Cetuximab.
The field of radiation therapy began to grow in the early 1900s largely due to the groundbreaking work of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie, who discovered the radioactive elements polonium and radium. This began a new era in medical treatment and research. Radium was used in various forms until the mid-1900s when cobalt and caesium units came into use. Medical linear accelerators have been used to as sources of radiation since the late 1940s.
With Godfrey Hounsfield’s invention of computed tomography (CT) in 1971, three-dimensional planning became a possibility and created a shift from 2-D to 3-D radiation delivery; CT-based planning allows physicians to more accurately determine the dose distribution using axial tomographic images of the patient's anatomy. Orthovoltage and cobalt units have largely been replaced by megavoltage linear accelerators, useful for their penetrating energies and lack of physical radiation source.
The advent of new imaging technologies, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in the 1970s and positron emission tomography (PET) in the 1980s, has moved radiation therapy from 3-D conformal to intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) and image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT). These advances allowed radiation oncologists to better see and target tumors, which have resulted in better treatment outcomes, more organ preservation and fewer side effects.
Historically, the three main divisions of radiotherapy are external beam radiotherapy (EBRT or XBRT) or teletherapy, brachytherapy or sealed source radiotherapy, and systemic radioisotope therapy or unsealed source radiotherapy. The differences relate to the position of the radiation source; external is outside the body, brachytherapy uses sealed radioactive sources placed precisely in the area under treatment, and systemic radioisotopes are given by infusion or oral ingestion. Brachytherapy can use temporary or permanent placement of radioactive sources. The temporary sources are usually placed by a technique called afterloading. In afterloading a hollow tube or applicator is placed surgically in the organ to be treated, and the sources are loaded into the applicator after the applicator is implanted. This minimizes radiation exposure to health care personnel. Particle therapy is a special case of external beam radiotherapy where the particles are protons or heavier ions. Introperative radiotherapy is a special type of radiotherapy that is delivered immediately after surgical removal of the cancer. This method has been employed in breast cancer (TARGeted Introperative radioTherapy), brain tumours and rectal cancers.
The following three sections refer to treatment using x-rays.
Conventional external beam radiotherapy (2DXRT) is delivered via two-dimensional beams using linear accelerator machines. 2DXRT mainly consists of a single beam of radiation delivered to the patient from several directions: often front or back, and both sides. Conventional refers to the way the treatment is planned or simulated on a specially calibrated diagnostic x-ray machine known as a simulator because it recreates the linear accelerator actions (or sometimes by eye), and to the usually well-established arrangements of the radiation beams to achieve a desired plan. The aim of simulation is to accurately target or localize the volume which is to be treated. This technique is well established and is generally quick and reliable. The worry is that some high-dose treatments may be limited by the radiation toxicity capacity of healthy tissues which lay close to the target tumor volume. An example of this problem is seen in radiation of the prostate gland, where the sensitivity of the adjacent rectum limited the dose which could be safely prescribed using 2DXRT planning to such an extent that tumor control may not be easily achievable. Prior to the invention of the CT, physicians and physicists had limited knowledge about the true radiation dosage delivered to both cancerous and healthy tissue. For this reason, 3-dimensional conformal radiotherapy is becoming the standard treatment for a number of tumor sites.
Stereotactic radiation is a specialized type of external beam radiation therapy. It uses focused radiation beams targeting a well-defined tumor using extremely detailed imaging scans. Radiation oncologists perform stereotactic treatments, often with the help of a neurosurgeon for tumors in the brain or spine.
There are two types of stereotactic radiation. Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) is when doctors use a single or several stereotactic radiation treatments of the brain or spine. Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) refers to one or several stereotactic radiation treatments with the body, such as the lungs.
Some doctors say an advantage to stereotactic treatments are they deliver the right amount of radiation to the cancer in a shorter amount of time than traditional treatments, which can often take six to 11 weeks. Plus treatments are given with extreme accuracy, which should limit the effect of the radiation on healthy tissues. One problem with stereotactic treatments is that they are only suitable for certain small tumors.
Stereotactic treatments can be confusing because many hospitals call the treatments by the name of the manufacturer rather than calling it SRS or SBRT. Brand names for these treatments include Axesse, Cyberknife, Gamma Knife, Novalis, Primatom, Synergy, X-Knife, TomoTherapy and Trilogy. This list changes as equipment manufacturers continue to develop new, specialized technologies to treat cancers.
The planning of radiotherapy treatment has been revolutionized by the ability to delineate tumors and adjacent normal structures in three dimensions using specialized CT and/or MRI scanners and planning software.
Virtual simulation, the most basic form of planning, allows more accurate placement of radiation beams than is possible using conventional X-rays, where soft-tissue structures are often difficult to assess and normal tissues difficult to protect.
An enhancement of virtual simulation is 3-Dimensional Conformal Radiotherapy (3DCRT), in which the profile of each radiation beam is shaped to fit the profile of the target from a beam's eye view (BEV) using a multileaf collimator (MLC) and a variable number of beams. When the treatment volume conforms to the shape of the tumour, the relative toxicity of radiation to the surrounding normal tissues is reduced, allowing a higher dose of radiation to be delivered to the tumor than conventional techniques would allow.
Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT) is an advanced type of high-precision radiation that is the next generation of 3DCRT. IMRT also improves the ability to conform the treatment volume to concave tumor shapes, for example when the tumor is wrapped around a vulnerable structure such as the spinal cord or a major organ or blood vessel. Computer-controlled x-ray accelerators distribute precise radiation doses to malignant tumors or specific areas within the tumor. The pattern of radiation delivery is determined using highly-tailored computing applications to perform optimization and treatment simulation (Treatment Planning). The radiation dose is consistent with the 3-D shape of the tumor by controlling, or modulating, the radiation beam’s intensity. The radiation dose intensity is elevated near the gross tumor volume while radiation among the neighboring normal tissue is decreased or avoided completely. The customized radiation dose is intended to maximize tumor dose while simultaneously protecting the surrounding normal tissue. This may result in better tumor targeting, lessened side effects, and improved treatment outcomes than even 3DCRT.
3DCRT is still used extensively for many body sites but the use of IMRT is growing in more complicated body sites such as CNS, head and neck, prostate, breast and lung. Unfortunately, IMRT is limited by its need for additional time from experienced medical personnel. This is because physicians must manually delineate the tumors one CT image at a time through the entire disease site which can take much longer than 3DCRT preparation. Then, medical physicists and dosimetrists must be engaged to create a viable treatment plan. Also, the IMRT technology has only been used commercially since the late 1990s even at the most advanced cancer centers, so radiation oncologists who did not learn it as part of their residency program must find additional sources of education before implementing IMRT.
Proof of improved survival benefit from either of these two techniques over conventional radiotherapy (2DXRT) is growing for many tumor sites, but the ability to reduce toxicity is generally accepted. Both techniques enable dose escalation, potentially increasing usefulness. There has been some concern, particularly with 3DCRT, about increased exposure of normal tissue to radiation and the consequent potential for secondary malignancy. Overconfidence in the accuracy of imaging may increase the chance of missing lesions that are invisible on the planning scans (and therefore not included in the treatment plan) or that move between or during a treatment (for example, due to respiration or inadequate patient immobilization). New techniques are being developed to better control this uncertainty—for example, real-time imaging combined with real-time adjustment of the therapeutic beams. This new technology is called image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT) or four-dimensional radiotherapy.
In particle therapy (Proton therapy), energetic ionizing particles (protons or carbon ions) are directed at the target tumor. The dose increases while the particle penetrates the tissue, up to a maximum (the Bragg peak) that occurs near the end of the particle's range, and it then drops to (almost) zero. The advantage of this energy deposition profile is that less energy is deposited into the healthy tissue surrounding the target tissue.
Systemic radioisotope therapy is a form of targeted therapy. Targeting can be due to the chemical properties of the isotope such as radioiodine which is specifically absorbed by the thyroid gland a thousand-fold better than other bodily organs. Targeting can also be achieved by attaching the radioisotope to another molecule or antibody to guide it to the target tissue. The radioisotopes are delivered through infusion (into the bloodstream) or ingestion. Examples are the infusion of metaiodobenzylguanidine (MIBG) to treat neuroblastoma, of oral iodine-131 to treat thyroid cancer or thyrotoxicosis, and of hormone-bound lutetium-177 and yttrium-90 to treat neuroendocrine tumors (peptide receptor radionuclide therapy). Another example is the injection of radioactive glass or resin microspheres into the hepatic artery to radioembolize liver tumors or liver metastases.
A major use of systemic radioisotope therapy is in the treatment of bone metastasis from cancer. The radioisotopes travel selectively to areas of damaged bone, and spare normal undamaged bone. Isotopes commonly used in the treatment of bone metastasis are strontium-89 and samarium (153Sm) lexidronam.
In 2002, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved ibritumomab tiuxetan (Zevalin), which is an anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody conjugated to yttrium-90. In 2003, the FDA approved the tositumomab/iodine (131I) tositumomab regimen (Bexxar), which is a combination of an iodine-131 labelled and an unlabelled anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody. These medications were the first agents of what is known as radioimmunotherapy, and they were approved for the treatment of refractory non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Radiation therapy is in itself painless. Many low-dose palliative treatments (for example, radiotherapy to bony metastases) cause minimal or no side effects, although short-term pain flare up can be experienced in the days following treatment due to oedema compressing nerves in the treated area. Treatment to higher doses causes varying side effects during treatment (acute side effects), in the months or years following treatment (long-term side effects), or after re-treatment (cumulative side effects). The nature, severity, and longevity of side effects depends on the organs that receive the radiation, the treatment itself (type of radiation, dose, fractionation, concurrent chemotherapy), and the patient.
Most side effects are predictable and expected. Side effects from radiation are usually limited to the area of the patient's body that is under treatment. One of the aims of modern radiotherapy is to reduce side effects to a minimum, and to help the patient to understand and to deal with those side effects which are unavoidable.
The main side effects reported are fatigue and skin irritation, like a mild to moderate sun burn. The fatigue often sets in during the middle of a course of treatment and can last for weeks after treatment ends. The skin irritation will also go away, but it may not be as elastic as it was before. Patients should ask their radiation oncologist or radiation oncology nurse about possible products and medications that can help with side effects. 
Damage to the epithelial surfaces. Epithelial surfaces may sustain damage from radiation therapy. Depending on the area being treated, this may include the skin, oral mucosa, pharyngeal, bowel mucosa and ureter. The rates of onset of damage and recovery from it depend upon the turnover rate of epithelial cells. Typically the skin starts to become pink and sore several weeks into treatment. The reaction may become more severe during the treatment and for up to about one week following the end of radiotherapy, and the skin may break down. Although this moist desquamation is uncomfortable, recovery is usually quick. Skin reactions tend to be worse in areas where there are natural folds in the skin, such as underneath the female breast, behind the ear, and in the groin.
If the head and neck area is treated, temporary soreness and ulceration commonly occur in the mouth and throat. If severe, this can affect swallowing, and the patient may need painkillers and nutritional support/food supplements. The esophagus can also become sore if it is treated directly, or if, as commonly occurs, it receives a dose of collateral radiation during treatment of lung cancer.
The lower bowel may be treated directly with radiation (treatment of rectal or anal cancer) or be exposed by radiotherapy to other pelvic structures (prostate, bladder, female genital tract). Typical symptoms are soreness, diarrhoea, and nausea.
Swelling (edema or oedema). As part of the general inflammation that occurs, swelling of soft tissues may cause problems during radiotherapy. This is a concern during treatment of brain tumours and brain metastases, especially where there is pre-existing raised intracranial pressure or where the tumour is causing near-total obstruction of a lumen (e.g., trachea or main bronchus). Surgical intervention may be considered prior to treatment with radiation. If surgery is deemed unnecessary or inappropriate, the patient may receive steroids during radiotherapy to reduce swelling.
Infertility. The gonads (ovaries and testicles) are very sensitive to radiation. They may be unable to produce gametes following direct exposure to most normal treatment doses of radiation. Treatment planning for all body sites is designed to minimize, if not completely exclude dose to the gonads if they are not the primary area of treatment.
Late side effects occur months to years after treatment. They are often due to damage of blood vessels and connective tissue cells. Many late effects are reduced by fractionating treatment into smaller parts.
Cumulative effects from this process should not be confused with long-term effects—when short-term effects have disappeared and long-term effects are subclinical, reirradiation can still be problematic.
There are rigorous procedures in place to minimise the risk of accidental overexposure of radiotherapy to patients. However, mistakes do occasionally occur; for example, the radiation therapy machine Therac-25 was responsible for at least six accidents between 1985 and 1987, where patients were given up to one hundred times the intended dose; two people were killed directly by the radiation overdoses. From 2005 to 2010, a hospital in Missouri overradiated 76 patients (most with brain cancer) during a five-year period because new radiation equipment had been set up incorrectly,. Although medical errors are exceptionally rare, radiation oncologists, medical physicists and other members of the radiation therapy treatment team are working diligently to eliminate them. ASTRO has launched a safety initiative called Target Safely that, among other things, aims to record errors nation wide so that doctors can learn from each and every mistake and prevent them from happening. ASTRO also publishes a list of questions for patients to ask their doctors about radiation safety to ensure every treatment is as safe .