To many, radiation is first and foremost associated with things that make most of us quiver in our boots – be it the cancers it can cause, or the rather gruesome effects of receiving way too much radiation. However, throughout our lives, virtually all of us will at one point or another come in contact radiation, such as x-rays – be it when going to the dentist for an annual check-up or examining a potentially broken wrist. Indeed, it is perhaps counterintuitive that the most likely scenario of you being exposed to extreme amounts of radiation in your life is in a hospital setting.
It is perhaps ironic, as Hollywood has tried very hard to make radiation from nuclear reactors seem so dangerous, especially when many thousands of patients annually get doses far exceeding even the highest doses received at Chernobyl.
X-rays was discovered in 1895 by William Röntgen – hence the name “Röntgen” radiation in many languages – and less than a month after its discovery, x-rays were being used for medical purposes, allowing doctors to see inside the human body without operating. Nowadays, x-rays are one of the most essential tools in the doctors’ arsenal, helping to determine whether bones have been broken, detect breast cancers, or diagnose pneumonia or COVID19.
2. CT scan
At its most basic, a CT scan is nothing more than a large number of x-rays put together by a computer, providing doctors with a much more detailed picture of the patient. Thanks to the details provided by CT scans, they can be used not only to detect complex bone problems, but also help to stop cancers, show internal bleeding, and guide surgery and radiotherapy, to mention but a few. Given the amount of pictures taken for the scan, the radiation dose is higher than for a single x-ray picture.
3. External radiotherapy
The, by far, most common type of radiation therapy to treat cancer is something called “external beam radiation”, where the affected area of your body is quite literally bombarded with radiation, trying to kill the tumour. The radiation doses are often really high, usually delivered at numerous occasions over a period of less than a month. These doses are often many times above the lethal limits, but because they are delivered to a small part of the body and spaced out, the radiation can kill the cancer, whilst saving the patient’s life.
4. Internal radiotherapy
In some cases, the most effective way to treat cancers is to irradiate the tumours from within. This can be done in several ways, such as taking iodine pills to treat thyroid cancers, the same type of iodine which caused some 6500 thyroid cancers after Chernobyl. Another widely used internal treatment is brachytherapy – don’t Google it – where a large number of small radioactive rods are used to treat e.g. prostate cancer. These rods deliver a high radiation dose over a few months, killing the cancer cells before the radioactivity naturally reduces and vanishes. Despite my warning, I am sure many are already searching for images - don’t tell me I didn’t warn you…!
Treating cancer with the knife, radiation…or chemo?
Cancer is, unfortunately, very much a part of the human experience. Most of us will one day make an acquaintance with this disease which in many ways hold a unique place in our cultures. As children, we’re taught that finding lumps or many bruises somewhere could be a sign that this malicious disease has found a foothold in our body.
Once confirmed, there are a number of ways to try and fight the cancer, such as surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Which option, or combination of options, are used depends on the cancer type. The most commonly used is chemotherapy, where different drugs are used to kill fast-diving cells – cancerous and normal – which often kills more healthy cells than cancer cells as it targets the whole body, resulting in hair loss and other nasty side effects. Radiation therapy, on the other hand, is much more targeted and have generally less severe side effects.
It is important, however, that we remember that each cancer diagnosis is unique, and that the decision of whether or not use radiation should depend entirely on the clinical picture, rather than any fear of radiation.
- John Lindberg