An Introduction to Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy has been used in cancer medicine for more than a century. Its precise techniques cure more people with cancer than cancer drugs. So how did this lifesaving treatment come about? The story of radiotherapy goes back to 1895 when German physicist Wilhelm Rontgen was experimenting with the effects of electricity on gases. He discovered a new type of radiation that could travel through certain substances, such as skin, but was blocked by others, like bone.

This new discovery of radiology was a breakthrough for medical imaging. Doctors were able to identify things like fractures and other diseases that would have otherwise gone unseen by the naked eye. Doctors soon came to realize that x-rays could damage the skin if they were used too often. This made them more curious to see if they could take advantage of this side effect to treat diseases, including cancer. More research continued to see how cells were affected by radiation. This has ultimately led to our modern radiation that is used today.

So, how does radiotherapy actually work? During the radiotherapy, a high dose of radiation is aimed towards a person’s tumour, which damages a cell’s fragile DNA. Since radiation has to go through healthy tissues to reach its target, the non-cancerous cells can also be damaged. However, healthy cells are able use tools to fix their DNA structures. The cancer cells are less able to do so, and are therefore destroyed. This is why radiotherapy is given over a spread out period of time; it allows the healthy cells a chance to recover from the radiotherapy.

Throughout the years, scientists have developed many new ways to make radiotherapy more precise, but the overall principle has remained the same: high doses of radiation aimed at the tumour. The two main types of radiotherapy are external and internal, with external being the most common type used. Since this radiotherapy does damage healthy cells during the treatment, it has been the goal of many scientists to minimize the damage to those cells, while still maximizing the damage to the bad cells. Doctors are now able to use CT or MRI scans to help them pinpoint the exact location and shape of the tumour so when they use the radiotherapy, they can aim as close to the tumour and nowhere else.

Radiotherapy may be old, but it’s gold. Researchers are continuously looking for new ways to improve the tool that has already saved so many lives. All treatments carry a risk, but as technology improves, these risks will be minimized, allowing patients to live longer, happier, and healthier lives.
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