How radiation therapy works, and how we’re making it better

Woman receives radiation treatment

By Phillip Gray, M.D.
Hallmark Health Center for Radiation Oncology in Stoneham, Mass.

I get many questions about radiation therapy from cancer patients and their families. How does it work? Is it safe? Why does it take so many treatments? And what are we doing to make the process easier? First off, it’s good to know a bit about how our body tissue reacts to radiation and why it’s effective at treating cancer.

How radiation therapy works

Woman receives radiation treatment

Advanced radiation therapy can reduce the time patients spend receiving treatment

People absorb very small amounts of radiation every day. Much of this comes in the form of cosmic rays from the sun and stars. A small amount can be omitted from some consumer products, such as older TVs. It’s even emitted from the earth as naturally occurring radioactive materials are broken down.

Humans have always been exposed to low levels of radiation. Our cells have evolved to resist radiation by repairing – little by little each day – the tissue damage it causes. Our bodies are well equipped to handle the impact of low, steady doses of radiation.

Cancer is characterized by rapid, uncontrolled cell growth that creates tumors. In order to grow rapidly cancer cells give up some of their ability to heal from radiation exposure. When a cancer cell is exposed to radiation, the damage doesn’t go away. It accumulates over time. Eventually, the tumor will shrink as radiation kills the cancer cells.

While healthy cells can easily recover from small doses, large amounts of radiation can cause problems such as skin wounds that are slow to heal. If radiation is absorbed into a specific part of the body, it can cause issues related to the affected tissue and organs. For example, radiation delivered to the stomach area can cause vomiting.

Instead of delivering a few large doses that can cause severe side effects and complications, we use many lower doses daily for weeks at a time. Radiation treatment for most cancers is usually delivered five times per week, and can last between five to nine weeks.

Targeting tumors for shorter radiation therapy

The amount of radiation we use in cancer treatment is much higher than what you normally encounter in everyday life, but modern medical technology allows us to deliver it precisely to the tumor and minimize damage to surrounding healthy tissue.

Advancements in radiation technology now allow us to target tumors more precisely than ever before. Using this surgical precision means we can raise the level of radiation while further reducing the damage to healthy tissue surrounding tumors – and the resulting side effects. An excellent example is the treatment of early-stage lung cancer which in some cases can be treated in just one week instead of 6.

What does that mean for you? You may be able to receive more effective radiation treatment in less time, and with a lower risk for side effects. You’ll have more time and energy to do the things you love without cancer treatment getting in the way.

We’re committed to making radiation therapy easier on our patients by continually updating our technologies to provide more effective and more efficient treatment customized to your individual needs.

If you want to learn more about radiation therapy at the Center for Radiation Oncology or schedule a consultation, give us a call at 781-279-0655 or email



Tags: cancer, radiation, radiation oncology, radiation therapy

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