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Tremendous advancements in cancer therapies, specifically radiation oncology, have made cancer treatments more effective than ever.

“Options in radiation treatment are excellent and the success rates are quite gratifying. We can tie that into improved technology of radiation,” says Anthony Abner, M.D., chief of radiation oncology at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School.

As one of the most common forms of cancer treatment, radiation therapy uses high-energy waves to destroy or damage cancer cells, stopping them from growing or spreading. Radiation therapy is effective because it’s a local therapy, specifically treating the cancerous area and sparing healthy tissue nearby. It’s often used in conjunction with chemotherapy or other cancer therapies, although it can be used alone as well.

Dr. Abner says there are two types of radiation therapy: internal (brachytherapy) and external (external beam radiation).

Internal radiation therapy is a single procedure in which radioactive implants or pellets are placed into the infected area. The implants then release radioactive material to the cancerous area for months.

External radiation is administered to the patient from a source outside the body. Tiny pellets, known as gold seeds (which are not radioactive), are implanted into the patient’s prostate for positioning purposes - so that the oncologist can see the prostate in an X-ray, which helps to make for a very targeted delivery of radiation.

“Gold seeds allow for electronic imaging,” says Dr. Abner. He says treating prostate cancer, for example, can be tricky for a couple reasons: First, because you can’t see the prostate in an X-ray and second, because the position of the prostate changes, Dr. Abner says depending on how full the bladder or bowel is affects the position of the prostate.

“Knowing exactly where the prostate is on a daily basis makes for a more precise delivery of radiation to the prostate,” says Dr. Abner.

Before a patient begins radiation therapy, the oncologist will map out the cancerous area so he knows where to direct the radiation. In the past, physicians would give themselves about one and a half centimeters for a margin of error. Today, with the help of gold seeds, that margin of error is cut down to mere millimeters.

“We can actually get within two to three millimeters of the target area. That precision allows us to also use a higher dose of radiation,” says Dr. Abner. “Not only that, but having that degree of accuracy also saves healthy tissue.”

External beam radiation usually lasts up to eight weeks.

For more information or to find support before, during or after treatment, please visit Mount Auburn’s Barron Center for Men’s Health.

For a free Mount Auburn Hospital cancer education packet, please call us at 617-499-5094.