Different cancers respond to radiation therapy in different ways.
The response of a cancer to radiation is described by its radiosensitivity. Highly radiosensitive cancer cells are rapidly killed by modest doses of radiation. These include leukemias, most lymphomas and germ cell tumors. The majority of epithelial cancers are only moderately radiosensitive, and require a significantly higher dose of radiation (60-70 Gy) to achieve a radical cure. Some types of cancer are notably radioresistant, that is, much higher doses are required to produce a radical cure than may be safe in clinical practice. Renal cell cancer and melanoma are generally considered to be radioresistant but radiation therapy is still a palliative option for many patients with metastatic melanoma. Combining radiation therapy with immunotherapy is an active area of investigation and has shown some promise for melanoma and other cancers.
It is important to distinguish the radiosensitivity of a particular tumor, which to some extent is a laboratory measure, from the radiation “curability” of a cancer in actual clinical practice. For example, leukemias are not generally curable with radiation therapy, because they are disseminated through the body. Lymphoma may be radically curable if it is localised to one area of the body. Similarly, many of the common, moderately radioresponsive tumors are routinely treated with curative doses of radiation therapy if they are at an early stage. For example: non-melanoma skin cancer, head and neck cancer, breast cancer, non-small cell lung cancer, cervical cancer, anal cancer, prostate cancer. Metastatic cancers are generally incurable with radiation therapy because it is not possible to treat the whole body.
Before treatment, a CT scan is often performed to identify the tumor and surrounding normal structures. The patient receives small skin marks to guide the placement of treatment fields. Patient positioning is crucial at this stage as the patient will have to be set-up in the identical position during treatment. Many patient positioning devices have been developed for this purpose, including masks and cushions which can be molded to the patient.
The response of a tumor to radiation therapy is also related to its size. Due to complex radiobiology, very large tumors respond less well to radiation than smaller tumors or microscopic disease. Various strategies are used to overcome this effect. The most common technique is surgical resection prior to radiation therapy. This is most commonly seen in the treatment of breast cancer with wide local excision or mastectomy followed by adjuvant radiation therapy. Another method is to shrink the tumor with neoadjuvant chemotherapy prior to radical radiation therapy. A third technique is to enhance the radiosensitivity of the cancer by giving certain drugs during a course of radiation therapy. Examples of radiosensitizing drugs include: Cisplatin, Nimorazole, and Cetuximab.
The effect of radiotherapy on control of cancer has been shown to be limited to the first five years after surgery, particularly for breast cancer. The difference between breast cancer recurrence in patients who receive radiotherapy vs. those who don’t is seen mostly in the first 2–3 years and no difference is seen after 5 years. This is explained in detail here.