- How are Ewing tumors treated?
- Chemotherapy for Ewing tumors
- Surgery for Ewing tumors
- Radiation therapy for Ewing tumors
- High-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant for Ewing tumors
- Clinical trials for Ewing tumors
- Complementary and alternative therapies for Ewing tumors
- Treatment of Ewing tumors by stage
- Social, emotional, and other issues in treating Ewing tumors
- More treatment information for Ewing tumors
Radiation therapy for Ewing tumors
Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells. In people with Ewing tumors, radiation therapy may be used with surgery, or it may be used instead of surgery, especially if it would be hard to remove the entire tumor surgically. In either case, chemotherapy is usually given before, during, and afterward.
External beam radiation therapy focuses high-energy beams on the cancer from a machine outside the body. This is the type of radiation therapy most often used to treat Ewing tumors.
Before treatments start, the radiation team takes careful measurements with imaging tests such as MRI scans to determine the correct angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose of radiation.
External radiation therapy is much like getting an x-ray, but the dose of radiation is much higher. For each session, your child will lie on a special table while a machine delivers the radiation from a precise angle. The treatment is not painful.
Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, but the setup time – getting your child into place for treatment – usually takes longer. Some younger children may be given medicine to make them drowsy before each treatment. Most often, radiation treatments are given 5 days a week for several weeks.
Some newer radiation techniques allow doctors to focus the radiation more precisely:
Three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT): Three-dimensional CRT uses the results of imaging tests such as MRI and special computers to precisely map the location of the tumor. Several radiation beams are then shaped and aimed at the tumor from different directions. Each beam alone is fairly weak, which makes it less likely to damage normal body tissues, but the beams converge at the tumor to give a higher dose of radiation there. Your child may be fitted with a plastic mold resembling a body cast to keep him or her in the same position so that the radiation can be aimed more accurately.
Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): IMRT is an advanced form of 3D therapy that may be especially useful for tumors near the spine. In addition to shaping the beams and aiming them at the tumor from several angles, the intensity (strength) of the beams can be adjusted to limit the dose reaching the most sensitive normal tissues. This may let the doctor deliver a higher dose to the tumor. Many major hospitals and cancer centers now use IMRT, especially for tumors in hard-to-treat areas such as the spine or pelvis (hip bones).
Conformal proton beam radiation therapy: Proton beam therapy is related to 3D-CRT and uses a similar approach. But instead of using x-rays, it focuses proton beams on the tumor. Protons are positive parts of atoms. Unlike x-rays, which release energy both before and after they hit their target, protons cause little damage to tissues they pass through and then release their energy after traveling a certain distance. Doctors can use this property to deliver more radiation to the tumor and do less damage to nearby normal tissues.
As with IMRT, this approach may be helpful for hard-to-treat tumors, such as those on the spine or pelvic bones. The machines needed to make protons are expensive, and there are only a handful of them being used in the United States at this time.
Possible side effects of radiation therapy
Because of the possible side effects of radiation therapy (especially in growing children), surgery is often preferred if it is possible. But improvements in the way radiation therapy is given now allow children with Ewing tumors to be treated with lower doses than were used in the past, helping to reduce some of these side effects.
The side effects of radiation therapy depend on the dose of radiation and where it is aimed. Some effects may be short term, while others may have a longer lasting impact.
Short-term problems may include effects on skin areas that receive radiation, which can range from mild sunburn-like changes and hair loss to more severe skin reactions. Radiation to the abdomen or pelvis can cause nausea, diarrhea, and urinary problems.
Long-term side effects can be more serious, especially in growing children, so doctors try to limit them as much as possible.
A serious problem of radiation therapy in children is that it can interfere with bone growth. In younger children, some bones will not grow well after radiation. For example, radiation to the bones in one leg may result in it being much shorter than the other. Radiotherapy of facial bones may cause uneven growth, which might affect how a child looks. But if a child is fully or almost fully grown, this is less likely to be an issue.
Depending on where the radiation is aimed, it can also damage other organs. Radiation to the chest wall or lungs may affect lung and heart function. Radiation to the pelvis may damage the bladder or intestines. It can also damage reproductive organs, which could affect fertility later in life, so doctors do their best to protect these organs by shielding them from the radiation or moving them out of the way whenever possible.
Side effects of radiation therapy to the spinal cord or brain may include nerve damage, headaches, and trouble thinking, which usually become most serious 1 or 2 years after treatment. Fortunately, Ewing tumors rarely spread to the brain, but they can sometimes extend into the brain from nearby bones of the skull.
Another major concern with radiation therapy is that it may cause a new cancer to form in the part of the body that was treated with the radiation. This is most often a different type of bone cancer called osteosarcoma. The higher the dose of radiation, the more likely this is to occur. This small risk should not keep children who need radiation from getting treatment. Still, it's important to continue follow-up visits with your child's doctor so that if problems come up they can be found and treated as early as possible.
For more detailed information on radiation therapy, see our document, Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.
Last Medical Review: 04/24/2012
Last Revised: 01/18/2013