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Therapeutic Radiology Overview

Therapeutic radiology (also called radiation oncology or radiation therapy) is the treatment of cancer and other diseases with radiation. Oncology is the branch of medicine concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Radiation in various forms is used to kill the cancer cells by preventing them from multiplying. Therapeutic radiology may be used to cure or control cancer, or to alleviate some of the symptoms associated with cancer.

Doctors who treat diseases with therapeutic radiology are called radiation oncologists.

Therapeutic radiology was developed just a few years after the discovery of X-rays in 1895 and the discovery of radium in 1898. The first cure of cancer by radiation was reported in 1899, involving a case of skin cancer. Radiation oncology became recognized as a medical specialty in 1922.

Therapeutic radiology treatment may be used alone, or in conjunction with other types of treatment, such as surgery, chemotherapy (the use of anticancer drugs to treat cancerous cells), and/or other treatments.

The level and type of radiation used will be determined by the radiation oncologist based on the type of cancer, location of the tumor, and sensitivity of the surrounding tissue.

Although each facility may have specific protocols in place, generally, radiation oncology procedures include these steps:

  • Simulation. To help set up the actual treatment, the treatment team first "maps" out the position the patient will be in for each treatment with the aid of molds, headrests, or other devices. Sometimes, the area on the body to be treated will be marked to ensure the radiation will be given in the exact area. In addition, special shields may be made to help focus the radiation and protect surrounding tissue.

  • Treatment plan. Once the simulation has taken place, the radiation oncologist will determine the exact type of treatment.