The Benefits and Role of Radiation Therapy for Cancer Patients Today

By Josh Levine, Chair, AdvaMed Radiation Therapy Sector, President and CEO, Accuray

This year alone, more than 12 million people around the world will be diagnosed with cancer, and 8 million people will die from the disease. While cancer continues to be a major worldwide health concern, and as World Cancer Day approaches, it is important to remember how far we’ve come in the fight against the disease and to shed light on current treatment options that can maximize a person’s chance of recovery and preserve their quality of life.

As the newly elected Chair of AdvaMed’s Radiation Therapy Sector, I want to highlight a cutting-edge cancer treatment that is proven to be safe and effective, yet is often misunderstood — radiotherapy. Also commonly referred to as radiation therapy, the technology uses different types of high-energy radiation to damage or kill cancer cells so they can’t reproduce, making it an innovative, life-saving tool in the treatment of people with cancer. What’s more, radiotherapy is a lower cost alternative to other cancer treatments.

Millions of people worldwide could benefit from radiotherapy yet there are still misconceptions and fears surrounding this life-saving treatment. Here are the most common questions I hear about radiotherapy:

Is radiotherapy a safe treatment option?

While radiotherapy has been around since the early 1900s, advances in medical technology starting in the 1960s — such as linear accelerators, imaging technologies, diagnostic devices and sophisticated hardware and software — have made this form of treatment extremely targeted and highly effective. Today, doctors can deliver radiation beams with sub-millimeter precision to target tumors, and can change the size, shape, direction and strength of treatment beams to individualize treatment to each patient. All of this means that doctors can carefully measure and precisely deliver radiation to the tumor while minimizing healthy tissue exposure and side-effects.

Today, radiation therapy is well tolerated by most patients, and it isn’t typically associated with the side effects of chemotherapy or surgery. While side effects such as fatigue, the most common one, can occur, their severity and frequency are lessened greatly by the precision of advanced, image-guided approaches to radiation delivery.

When is radiotherapy used?

Radiotherapy can be an effective part of a patient’s cancer treatment regimen. It can be used as a front-line cancer treatment, although it is not always thought of that way. That’s because doctors often wait to refer their patients to a radiation oncologist as a last resort or as part of end-of-life cancer treatment. Radiation therapy can actually be used as a curative treatment in place of or in combination with surgery or chemotherapy, or to shrink a tumor before surgery so it’s safer to remove.

Also, after surgery, radiotherapy can target remaining cancer cells to prevent cancer from returning. Additionally, radiotherapy is frequently employed in the treatment of metastatic and recurrent cancer, and in many cases it can provide months and even years of high-quality life. When it is used near the end of life it is an effective and efficient means of managing the pain which may accompany progressive cancer.

Today, as patients live longer with cancer and because of the recurring nature of many forms of the disease, some advanced radiation technologies can also be used to retreat patients who have been previously treated. This is a result of the extreme precision of some of these advanced radiation therapy treatments.

Who has access to radiotherapy?

By 2035, 12 million patients worldwide will need radiation therapy, however, many of them won’t have access to it. That’s because this important cancer treatment is not readily available across the globe; only 40 percent to 60 percent of patients with cancer currently have access to radiation therapy. Shortages of equipment, trained staff and facilities, most common in rural areas but also occurring in some high-income countries, have contributed to this problem. Globally, the lack of access is even more startling: 90 percent of the population in low-income countries lack access to this treatment.

How can we increase radiotherapy access worldwide?

To realize both the patient benefits and health system savings radiation therapy can bring to society, we need to continue to advocate for policies that recognize the clinical and economic benefits of radiotherapy, both in the U.S. and around the world. According to a report published in the Lancet, in low- and middle-income countries, with a $97 billion upfront investment, the economic benefits and cost savings are sizable: between $278 billion to $365 billion over the next 20 years. More importantly, these policies and investments would positively impact people living with cancer. It is estimated that if all patients had access by 2035, radiation therapy would prevent cancer from progressing in 2.5 million people and it would lead to an overall survival benefit for 950,000 people.

Accuray is proud to play a leadership role in enabling more people to be aware of cancer treatment options and the role of radiation therapy, and the company is committed to doing its part to enable patients to have access to this important technology. To that end, we recently committed to joining a new worldwide program with the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), AdvaMed and fellow radiotherapy companies Elekta and Varian Medical Systems. The C/Can 2025: City Cancer Challenge is a new initiative designed to reduce the number of premature deaths and economic burden resulting from cancer. Learn more about the initiative here and more about the value of radiotherapy here. More information on the side effects of treatment with radiotherapy is here.

Josh Levine is President and CEO of Accuray, a company that develops innovative tumor treatment solutions designed to help patients live longer, better lives.

The data cited in this article can be found in the article titled, “Expanding global access to radiotherapy,” which appeared in the September 2015 issue of the Lancet Oncology. The article abstract can be found here.