What is Conformal Radiation Therapy?

Donn Saylor

Conformal radiation therapy is a treatment that utilizes special equipment to tailor the size and scope of radiation beams to the specific dimensions of a cancerous tumor. This type of radiation therapy can target the tumor while leaving the sensitive tissue around the tumor unscathed. Conformal radiation therapy permits doctors to use advanced levels of radiation to combat a cancerous tumor.

A linear accelerator may be used for conformal radiation therapy.
A linear accelerator may be used for conformal radiation therapy.

During conformal radiation therapy, a computer screen displays an image of the tumor in three dimensional (3-D) form. Utilizing the information on the screen, the oncologist then positions the radiation beams directly at the tumor, locating the exact height, width, and area the tumor encompasses. Healthy regions surrounding the tumor can be avoided, ensuring that only the tumor itself receives the radiation beams.

In preparing for conformal radiation therapy, the patient is positioned in a sturdy foam molding that guarantees the effected area remains stationary. The imaging device is then placed over the region of the tumor, and the image is captured. The oncologist studies the image on the computer screen and tailors the radiation to fit the parameters of the tumor.

During conformal radiation therapy, several beams of radiation zero in on the tumor. Since the tumor is more precisely targeted than in other types of radiation therapy, this method of treating cancer permits higher levels of radiation to be utilized. The aim is to lessen the size of or eradicate the tumor while minimizing side effects on the healthy areas surrounding the mass.

After conformal radiation therapy, the patient will be given time to recover from the effects of the radiation, which can greatly deplete the body's natural resources. He or she will have follow-up visits with an oncologist to gauge the success of the cancer treatments. If the tumor has not reduced or disappeared, additional therapy may be necessary.

The side effects of conformal radiation therapy are similar to those experienced after other types of radiation therapy, though some patients report significantly lessened severity. Depending on the stage of the cancer, side effects can include nausea, vomiting, hair loss, swelling of the joints and skin, and dry mouth. Late-stage cancers pose a greater risk of more critical side effects like heart disease and the development of other types of cancer. Most less serious side effects are not long lasting, but the more critical effects have the possibility of becoming chronic.

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