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Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is a common cancer treatment that delivers high doses of radiation to specific areas of the body. It can be used to do one or more of the following:

  • Destroy cancer cells over a period of weeks or months
  • Shrink tumors
  • Relieve pain and other cancer symptoms to improve quality of life
  • Address problems caused by the tumor's growth, such as difficulty breathing or urinating

These are some of the cancers that may be treated with radiation therapy:

Can I benefit from radiation therapy?

Whether or not you have radiation therapy depends on many different factors, including the following:

  • The type of cancer
  • The size of the tumor
  • Whether the cancer is limited to a small area (localized) or has spread (metastasized)
  • Where in your body the cancer is located
  • How close the cancer is to vital organs or other sensitive tissues
  • Your current health and health history
  • Whether you will have other types of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy or surgery
  • Other factors, including your age and medical conditions
  • Your personal wishes about which treatments you want and which you don't

Our approach to radiation therapy

With most types of cancer, a radiation oncologist will be part of your cancer team at Rush. He or she will work with you and your team to customize your treatment plan.

Radiation oncologists at Rush strive to give patients the most effective dose of radiation while minimizing the often harsh side effects. This means using very precise techniques to deliver radiation only where it is needed, limiting the exposure for healthy tissue. 

Often, radiation therapy is combined with other treatments, such as chemotherapy. If radiation therapy and chemotherapy are given at the same time, it is called chemoradiation or radiochemotherapy.

Both external beam and internal radiation may also be used along with cancer surgery:

  • Before surgery to shrink tumors and make them easier to remove
  • During surgery to reach the tumor directly, without having to pass through the skin. This is called intraoperative radiation therapy, or IORT.
  • After surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left

Types of radiation therapy at Rush

Which type of radiation therapy and which specific technique you have depends on a variety of factors, including the type, size and location of the cancer. Your radiation therapy team will consider every necessary factor use their expertise to determine the best approach for you.

External beam radiation therapy

Radiation oncologists at Rush use advanced planning and treatment technologies to safely and painlessly deliver precise doses of radiation to a tumor.

This form of radiation is delivered by a linear accelerator that moves around your body but does not touch you. It aims the radiation at the cancer, not the whole body.

This therapy is given daily over several weeks, but the specific number of treatments varies.

Type of external beam radiation therapy How it works Used to treat
Three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy Allows the radiotherapy team to use specialized imaging to precisely plan radiation to match the tumor in three dimensions while sparing healthy surrounding tissue. Many types of cancer, including breast cancer, lung cancer and spinal cancer.
Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)  Enables the team to focus higher doses of radiation to specific regions within the tumor while minimizing radiation to normal tissue around the tumor. The radiation is delivered from multiple directions using intensity-modulated beams. Prostate cancer, head and neck cancers
Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) A nonsurgical radiation therapy used to treat functional abnormalities and small, well-defined tumors of the brain. Delivers a single high dose of radiation using the TrueBeam STx system, which reduces treatment time and minimizes damage to healthy tissue. Brain cancer, trigeminal neuralgia, arteriovenous malformations (AVM)
Stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) When stereotactic radiosurgery is used to treat body tumors, it's called stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT). Can accurately target small, well-defined tumors. Treatment is usually over three to five sessions. Prostate cancer, lung cancer
Total body irradiation Often combined with stem cell or bone marrow transplant to treat cancers that are spread throughout the body. Leukemias, lymphomas
Total skin electron irradiation Delivers radiation to the entire skin surface while sparing internal organs. Certain skin cancers, such as mycosis fungoides


Internal radiation

This type of radiation therapy involves placing the radiation source directly inside of the body, at the site of the cancer, instead of delivering radiation through the skin:

Type of internal radiation How it works Used to treat
Brachytherapy Radioactive seeds or wires are placed at the site of the cancer. Breast cancer, cervical cancer, prostate cancer, skin cancer
Intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT) for breast cancer This one-time, concentrated radiation treatment is given during a lumpectomy (surgery to remove a breast tumor). It targets the area of the breast most at risk for recurrence, while sparing healthy tissue and organs. Early-stage breast cancer


Specialized procedures and techniques

At Rush, radiation oncologists also use the following procedures and techniques to tailor treatment to particular cancers.

Not every patient is a good candidate for these procedures and techniques. Your radiation oncologist will talk to you about whether any of these options are right for you:

Procedure or technique How it works Used to treat
Respiratory gating This technique synchronizes radiation therapy with a patient's breathing for cancers in organs that move when you breathe. The radiation beams turn on and off to deliver radiation only during certain points in a patient's respiration cycle. Breast cancer, liver cancer, lung cancer
Prone breast irradiation The patient lies on her stomach so that her heart and lungs are less exposed to radiation during treatment. Breast cancer
Accelerated breast irradiation This type of whole breast irradiation cuts treatment time in half and gives the same benefits. Accelerated partial breast irradiation can help preserve the breast. Early-stage breast cancer
Deep inspiration breath hold  This technique helps minimize the amount of radiation exposure to the heart — while not affecting the amount delivered to the tumor — during treatment. Cancers in the left breast
Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT) For this technique, your radiation therapy team images the tumor before every treatment so they can deliver a higher dose of radiation more percisely to the tumor. IGRT can adjust for changes in the patient's position as well as tumor changes throughout treatment. Doctors at Rush deliver IGRT using the TomoTherapy Hi-Art and Varian Trilogy systems. Brain cancer, breast cancer, head and neck cancers, lung cancers, prostate cancer, sarcomas


Why choose Rush for radiation therapy

  • Specialized expertise: Because radiation oncologists at Rush focuses on treating specific forms of cancers, they have a better understanding of treatment nuances for these types of cancer.
  • Innovative treatments: Radiation oncologists at Rush are committed to using techniques that help eliminate cancers while sparing healthy tissues, such as deep inspiration breath hold for left-sided breast cancer and hippocampal-sparing brain radiotherapy for brain cancers. Rush is also one of the few centers in the Midwest to offer intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT) for breast cancer. 
  • Accredited care: The Rush University Cancer Center received the Outstanding Achievement Award from the American College of Surgeons' Commission on Cancer in its most recent survey. Rush has received this triennial award all four times since the award was created in 2004. The prestigious award recognizes programs that excel in providing quality cancer care.
  • Nationally recognized program: Cancer services at Rush are ranked among the best in the country by U.S. News & World Report.