Marie Curie discovered radium in 1898, but researchers didn’t know what effect radium would have on the human body until 1901, when a man named Henri Becquerel decided to carry a tube filled with radium in his coat pocket for a few hours. A week or two later, he noticed severe inflammation of his skin beneath where the tube had been.
In its infancy, radiation treatment wasn’t always safe. Some early scientists who worked with radioactive elements paid for their experiments with their lives; Marie Curie died of a blood disease called aplastic anemia caused by radiation exposure. Fortunately, over a century later, doctors have learned how to safely use targeted cancer radiation therapy to shrink and even eliminate tumors and lesions. Now, millions of people live cancer-free lives thanks to doctors who provide radiation treatment.
How Radiation Treatments Kill Cancer Cells
Radioactive gamma rays, X-rays and charged particles kill cancer cells by damaging their DNA. The radiation either directly destroys the DNA or creates free radicals, which are charged particles that collide with DNA molecules. When their DNA is destroyed, cancer cells can no longer reproduce. They die and are flushed away by natural body processes.
The problem with radiation is that it can also kill normal cells. However, years of experimentation have taught doctors exactly how much radiation different body cells can withstand. Now, doctors develop targeted treatments designed to eliminate cancer while destroying as few healthy cells as possible. Depending on the type of cancer the patient has, doctors will use one of three types of radiation treatments:
- External-beam radiation therapy. A machine outside of the body delivers beams of radiation to the cancerous cells.
- Brachytherapy. Radioactive pellets are placed near the tumor. Brachytherapy is a common treatment for prostate, breast, ovarian and uterine cancers.
- Systemic radiation. Doctors use material, like radioactive iodine, and inject it into the bloodstream to fight certain types of cancer.
Robotic radiosurgery allows doctors to target hard-to-treat tumors in the prostate, brain, lungs, pancreas, liver and spine. One of the most effective robotic radiosurgery machines, the CyberKnife, targets a tumor on a three-dimensional coordinate plane. Then, it aims multiple radiation beams precisely at the target with an accuracy variance of less than a millimeter. Today’s precise stereotactic systems can deliver high radiation doses to cancer cells with little or no effect on the surrounding healthy cells.
When undergoing CyberKnife treatment, patients usually come to an outpatient center for five consecutive days. They receive treatments and then leave, and most experience few or no side effects. Doctors operating CyberKnife produce the same or better patient outcomes than doctors using other forms of robotic radiosurgery. In addition, CyberKnife treatment costs less than surgery performed with other devices.
Is Robotic Radiosurgery Right for My Prostate Cancer?
Doctors that have experience with robotic radiosurgery can evaluate your individual case to decide whether radiosurgery could be effective. If you’re selected as a candidate, then you’ll most likely work with a team consisting of caregivers like a radiation oncologist, a medical physicist, a radiation technician and a surgeon. Your team will map out your cancer lesion using imaging studies, like MRIs and CT scans.
Once the tumor has been carefully mapped, a radiation oncologist will plan exactly how much radiation your tissues will receive and where to target the radiation. Your treatment plan is loaded into the robot’s computer system for pinpoint precision. During treatment, you’ll lie on a treatment table while the robotic arm moves around you. While the robot delivers radiation beams to the cancer cells, it also takes continuous scans of the area to make sure it isn’t targeting healthy tissue.
Thanks to modern radiation therapies like CyberKnife robotic radiosurgery, cancer doesn’t have to take you away from the activities and the people you love. Men between the ages of 40 and 75 should talk to their doctors about taking tests, such as PSA tests or rectal exams, for prostate cancer. Early detection often means less invasive treatment.
About the Author: Jim McNeal is a radiation technician and a prostate cancer survivor.
Image from Saginaw Future Inc. from Flickr’s Creative Commons