Radiotherapy had its beginnings when Madame Curie, the discoverer of nuclear radiation, noted the effect the radiation had upon her hands, and theorised on the possibility of these invisible rays being used to destroy unwanted tissue. Radiotherapy is the treatment of disease (usually cancer) with various forms of ionising radiation. Different types of radiation may be used for different degrees of penetration into the tissue. The time of exposure also varies, depending upon the depth and sensitivity of the cancer. Some cancers are known to be very susceptible to irradiation, while others are quite resistant.
Once a patient is diagnosed as having a tumour that is sensitive to radiotherapy, they will be referred to one of the special clinics attached to major hospitals that have the facilities to apply radiotherapy. There the patient is assessed, the location of the cancer is determined, and special marks will be applied to the patient’s skin to allow the beam of radiation to be accurately directed at the cancer.
The patient is firmly secured to a stretcher so that no movement of the area affected by cancer is possible. Then following the plotted guidelines on the skin, the radiation machine is rotated around the patient to give the maximum possible dose of irradiation to the cancer, while avoiding damage to the skin and other vital internal organs. Depending on the site of the cancer, it may be attacked from only a few directions, or every imaginable direction that is safe. The aim is to destroy the cancer cells and allow the body’s natural defence mechanisms and waste clearance cells do the rest of the work.
In other situations, a small amount of radioactive material may be briefly implanted into the cancer within the body, to destroy the surrounding malignant cells.