This treatment uses high energy x-rays or particles to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy is an effective treatment for some children with retinoblastoma. Compared with surgery, it has the advantage of possibly saving vision in the eye. But radiation therapy also has some disadvantages (see Possible side effects below).
Two types of radiation therapy can be used to treat children with retinoblastoma.
External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) focuses radiation beams from a source outside the body on the cancer. This was once a common treatment for retinoblastoma. But because of the side effects it can cause, it is now most often used only for cancers that are not well-controlled with other treatments.
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. This planning session is called simulation.
Radiation is usually given 5 days a week for several weeks. Each treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the dose of radiation is much stronger. For each session, your child will lie on a special table while a machine delivers the radiation from precise angles.
The actual treatment each day lasts only a few minutes, but the setup time – getting your child into place for treatment – usually takes longer. The child’s head is positioned in a custom-fitted mold that is similar to a cast used to treat broken bones. The treatment is not painful, but young children may be given medicine to make them sleep so they will stay still during treatment.
Many centers now use newer types of external radiation therapy, which can target the tumor more precisely. This lowers the doses that surrounding normal tissues get, which may help reduce side effects.
IMRT lets doctors shape the radiation beams and aim them at the tumor from several angles, as well as adjust the intensity (strength) of the beams to limit the dose reaching the nearby normal tissues. This may let the doctor deliver a higher dose to the tumor, while reducing side effects. Many major hospitals and cancer centers now use IMRT.
Protons are positive parts of atoms. Unlike the x-rays used in standard radiation, 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. Proton beam radiation may be able to deliver the same level of radiation to the tumor while causing much less damage to nearby normal tissues.
Early results with proton beam therapy are promising, but it’s still fairly new, and there is very little long-term data on its use for retinoblastoma. Only a limited number of centers offer proton beam therapy in the United States at this time.
Some of the side effects of EBRT tend to go away after a short while and are usually not serious. Short-term problems might include effects on skin areas that receive radiation, which can range from mild sunburn-like changes and hair loss to more severe skin reactions.
More importantly, EBRT can damage nearby normal body tissues. This might eventually lead to cataracts (clouding of the lens of the eye) and damage to the retina or optic nerve, which could reduce vision. Radiation can also slow the growth of bones and other tissues near the eye, which can affect the way the area around the eye looks over time.
External radiation therapy can also increase the risk of developing a second cancer in the area. This is especially important in children with the hereditary form of retinoblastoma, who are already at increased risk for developing other types of cancer.
Newer forms of radiation therapy, such as IMRT and proton beam therapy, target the tumor more precisely and spare more normal tissue. This may make some of these side effects less likely than in the past.
The use of brachytherapy, also known as internal radiation therapy or episcleral plaque radiotherapy, is limited to small tumors.
During brachytherapy, a small amount of radioactive material is placed on the outside of the part of the eyeball where the tumor is, and it stays there for several days. The radioactive material is put in a small carrier (known as a plaque), which is shaped like a very small bottle cap. The plaque is made of gold or lead to shield nearby tissues from the radiation. The radiation travels a very short distance, so most of it will be focused only on the tumor.
The plaque is sewn in place on the eyeball with tiny stitches during a short operation. It is then removed during a second operation several days later. Both operations are done while the child is under general anesthesia (in a deep sleep). The child typically stays in the hospital while the plaque is in place.
Brachytherapy is less likely to cause side effects than external radiation. The main concern is damage to the retina or optic nerve, which can affect vision many months later. Recent advances in treatment may make this problem less likely. Brachytherapy has not been linked to an increased risk of developing a second cancer.
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Hurwitz RL, Shields CL, Shields JA, et al. Chapter 27: Retinoblastoma. In: Pizzo PA, Poplack DG, eds. Principles and Practice of Pediatric Oncology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2016.
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Last Revised: December 3, 2018