Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, uses high-energy rays to damage or kill cancer cells by preventing them from growing and dividing. Similar to surgery, radiation therapy is a local treatment used to eliminate or eradicate visible tumors. Radiation therapy is not typically useful in eradicating cancer cells that have already spread to other parts of the body. Radiation therapy may be externally or internally delivered. External radiation delivers high-energy rays directly to the tumor site from a machine outside the body. Internal radiation, or brachytherapy, involves the implantation of a small amount of radioactive material in or near the cancer. Radiation may be used to cure or control cancer, or to ease some of the symptoms caused by cancer. Sometimes radiation is used with other types of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy and surgery, and sometimes it is used alone.
Approximately half of all cancer patients undergo radiation therapy as part of their treatment. Radiation is usually the primary treatment for cancers of the head and neck, lung, bladder, and Hodgkin lymphoma. Radiation therapy is one facet of the overall treatment for cancers of the breast, prostate, colon, and esophagus, and can be given alone or used with other treatments, such as surgery or chemotherapy.