Radiation Therapy for Children

Pediatric oncologists and radiation oncologists at Rush University Children’s Hospital understand that treating children who have cancer with radiation is different from treating adults with radiation. They are dedicated to finding the most effective treatments to fight your child’s cancer, while also minimizing side effects from radiation.

Remarkable Care for Kids

  • Customized cancer care: Your child’s pediatric cancer team — which includes pediatric oncologists, radiation oncologists and others — will work with you and your child to customize your child’s treatment plan.
  • Reducing side effects from treatment: The radiation therapy techniques available for children at Rush University Children’s Hospital adjust radiation beams to each child’s tumor and body — sparing healthy tissue and preventing potential short-term and long-term side effects.
  • Access to clinical trials: As a member of the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), Rush offers our patients opportunities to participate in clinical trials that help evaluate new radiation treatments to fight childhood cancers.
  • Support during treatment: Specialists at Rush understand that having a child with cancer affects your entire family. We offer your child, you and your entire family a wide range of support services, including psychological services, education resources, financial counseling and nutritional support.
  • A kid-friendly inpatient experience: Child Life Services specialists at Rush University Children’s Hospital can help your child — and you — cope with the physical, social and emotional challenges of radiation treatments and hospitalization.

What is radiation therapy for children?

Radiation therapy uses various types of strong energy — X-rays, gamma, electron or proton waves — to damage cancer cells in children, preventing them from dividing and spreading.

Radiation therapy can also harm nearby healthy cells, which may cause side effects and interfere with a child’s growth and development. Thanks to technological advances, more precise approaches to radiation therapy are now available that specifically target cancer cells, leaving healthy tissue alone. That means radiation therapy can now provide better treatment results and fewer short- and long-term effects on children. 

When is radiation therapy used for children?

Children may receive radiation therapy as a treatment for many types of childhood cancers, including the following:

Types of radiation therapy

There are three types of radiation. The type used depends on the type of cancer, your child’s age and other considerations. Your child’s radiation oncologist will talk to you about which of these will work best for your child.

External radiation

Most children with cancer receive external radiation. Using high-powered radiation machines guided by computer mapping, your child’s pediatric radiation-oncology team is able to deliver very precise doses of radiation to cancerous tumors or cells. 

External radiation is typically provided to children on an outpatient basis. Your child will lie down, and a linear accelerator machine will aim radiation at the cancer. The machine does not touch your child. It only moves around your child’s body. 

The number and frequency of radiation sessions will depend on a child’s treatment plan. You can stay with your child while the radiation technicians sets up the equipment for your child’s treatment, but you will need to leave the room for a brief period when the radiation is being given.

Your child may need to be sedated for radiation treatment, depending on your child’s age and personality. Child life specialists and clinical psychologists collaborate with your child’s care team to help ease your child’s anxieties and prepare for their treatment.

Specific types of external radiation available at Rush University Children’s Hospital include the following:

  • Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT): Using your child’s CT and other imaging scans, pediatric radiation oncologists can tailor and guide radiation beams to precisely hit cancerous cells, based on your child’s size and the size and shape of the tumor. 
  • Stereotactic radiosurgery: The term “radiosurgery” does not involve any surgery. Instead, pediatric radiation oncologists use the TrueBeam STx system to deliver a single, high dose of radiation to a child’s tumor, minimizing the potential for damage or side effects. This approach typically only requires one radiation therapy visit.
  • Proton beam radiation therapy: Radiation oncologists at Rush are able to provide proton beam radiation therapy when indicated and recommended for their cancer treatment. Sometimes protons are good at killing targeted cancer cells without harming surrounding cells and tissue. Special machines, called synchrotrons and cyclotrons, are needed to provide this type of radiation therapy. 
  • Intraoperative radiation therapy: Pediatric surgeons and pediatric radiation therapists work together to deliver radiation to a tumor during surgery, particularly if the surgeon cannot remove all of the tumor. 

Internal radiation

Also known as brachytherapy, internal radiation involves putting a small implant inside your child’s body, which then delivers radiation to the cancerous cells. Certain types of childhood cancer, including head and neck cancer, may benefit from internal radiation.

The radioactive implant is typically placed via a thin tube during a minor surgical procedure. Your child will be sedated or medicine will be applied to the skin to prevent any pain during the procedure. The length of time that the implant is kept inside your child’s body will depend on your child’s personalized treatment plan.

Systemic radiation

In some cases, children are given radioactive drugs via an IV or by mouth. These drugs are specially designed to find and attach themselves to cancerous cells — and then deliver a dose of radiation.

Children typically stay in the hospital for a few days while taking radioactive drugs. This is the only type of radiation that can potentially spread to other people. It wears off a few days after your child finishes taking the drugs. However, parents and other loved ones will need to take precautions — such as using separate utensils when eating — for a short time to prevent getting exposed.

Follow-up care

Your child will need regular check-ups even after completing treatment. This way, your child’s care team can monitor your child’s health. Monitoring includes making sure that the cancer has not returned, and checking for any side effects caused by treatment.
At Rush’s long-term follow-up clinic, your child’s care team will include an oncologist, nurse educator and psychologist. They work closely with your child’s primary care clinician to monitor your child for possible late effects of radiation therapy.