Radiation Therapy and Cancer Treatment: How It Started

Following Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays in 1896 and Marie Curie’s discovery of radium in 1898, the world eagerly embraced the new technology of radiology and radiation therapy. Within months after the discovery, diagnosis systems were being built and within three years, radiation’s being used to treat cancer. In Australia, attempts to treat skin tumours were already made in the early 1900s.

History of Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy or radiotherapy uses radiation to kill cancer cells. In 1896, the first successful radiotherapy for cancer took place. Through the years that followed, radiologists have developed a standardised approach for this treatment modality. 

These significant breakthroughs in radiology have improved the quality of life of many people, especially those who have malignant diseases. 

Here’s how radiotherapy evolved from the start of the 20th century:

  • In the first quarter, It was discovered that radiation might cause cancer as well as cure it. Early radiologists would test the strength of radiation with the skin in their arm until they get the pink sunburn-like erythema. Many of them developed leukaemia. With that, physicians did more studies until the benefits outweighed the side effects a person gets from the treatment. 
  • In the 1920s, they understood that radiation is better fractionated than delivered in a singular session. 
  • In 1928, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) was created. The independent registered charity provides recommendations and guidance for the public’s protection against ionising radiation. 
  • Between the 1930s and 1950s is the “Orthovoltage era” marked by significant progress in brachytherapy and supervoltage X-ray treatment. 
  • A three-decade period known as the “Megavoltage” era followed. Cobalt teletherapy, potent linear accelerators, and proton beam therapy were the notable discoveries between the 1950s and 1980s. These allowed higher energy doses. 
  • At the end of the 1990s, stereotactic radiotherapy delivering radiation from different angles was developed. 
  • The 2000s saw the effectiveness of stereotactic radiotherapy in treating metastatic or recurrent tumours. Adaptive radiotherapy, an image-guided method, was also implemented in clinical practice.

Different Approaches of Radiotherapy

Radiation therapy is using electromagnetic radiation (X-ray, gamma) and particulates (electrons, neutrons, protons) to treat cancer and can be divided into two main categories: external and internal. In modern medicine, radiotherapy is often used in combination with surgery, chemotherapy, and other treatments. 

The approach would depend on the localisation, size, and type of cancer.

External Beam Radiation Therapy (EBRT) treats a specific body part with radiation from a machine. Most machines use photon beams that can reach tumours deep in the body. It’s commonly used to treat cancer types such as prostate, breast, lung, and brain cancer. 

Under EBRT are various types including:

  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) – allows adjustment of the intensity of the beams so there’s more control for normal tissues while delivering a high dose to the cancer cells. 
  • Stereotactic radiation therapy – delivers a large, precise radiation dose to a small tumour. The most common site is the brain. Related to this is stereotactic radiosurgery which uses technologies like the Gamma Knife that targets tumours without any skin incision.

Brachytherapy or implant therapy minimises unwanted radiation exposure to the normal tissues around the tumour. It places radioactive sources inside the body, close to or directly onto the area, using applicators, catheters or needles. It’s commonly used to treat prostate, cervical, endometrial, and skin cancer.

Delivering Total Radiation Dose

Since radiation is given in a series and not in a singular session, healthy cells have time to recover. Typically, sessions happen 5 times a week and continue for 3 to 9 weeks. Delivering doses include: 

  • Accelerated fractionation reduces the overall duration of treatment with larger daily or weekly doses. 
  • Hyperfractionation is when small doses and treatments are given more than once a day. 
  • Hypofractionation aims to reduce the number of treatments by delivering larger doses once a day or less.

Radiation Monitoring for Medical Staff

With continued advancements in technology and research, radiation therapy remains a critical component of cancer treatment and management.

But as much as radiation has been valuable in the medical field, we should also avoid unnecessary radiation exposure to use it to its full potential. Safety practices are important for any enterprise or organisation working with radiation sources. 

sensaweb monitoring databoard

Looking for area radiation monitors or personal radiation monitoring devices? You can count on SensaWeb. With our monitors, you can easily detect and interdict radioactive materials. 

Connect with us here or at our email address: info@sensaweb.com.au. You can also call us at +61 415 409 467.

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