March 4-10 is Patient Safety Awareness Week; at Dana-Farber, patient safety is at the top of our list 365 days a year. Here, we focus on one aspect of cancer treatment in which it’s especially important: radiation therapy.
Radiation therapy is common – about two-thirds of all cancer patients can expect it to be included in their care. And while radiation therapy has been used for 100 years, it’s understandable that the prospect might make you anxious, particularly with regard to safety concerns.
As with all aspects of cancer treatment at Dana-Farber, patient safety is at the core of radiation oncology. It needs to be: We’re highly aware of the fact that once given, radiation cannot be taken back.
Radiation is delivered by linear accelerators, or LINACs. Teams of physicists and therapists put each machine through a regular schedule of performance tests – daily, monthly, and annually. Each also has built-in redundancies: If a LINAC machine is not performing to specifications, it will not deliver radiation.
But obviously we don’t leave everything to machines to ensure patient safety. Our team of physicians, physicists, and radiation therapists works closely together to plan and review each patient’s treatment, and each treatment calculation is checked and double-checked before being delivered to a patient.
Other checks can range from the seemingly mundane — we use photo IDs and barcodes so we know we’re delivering the right treatment to the right person — to the highly technical — we take X-rays or CT scans before treatment to make sure the beams are targeting accurately — but they’re all means to the same end: to ensure the safest and most effective treatment for our patients.
As radiation treatment becomes more complex, so do our safety checks. Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) allows doctors to customize the dose by varying the amount of radiation given to different parts of the treatment area. Before any IMRT plan is delivered physicists perform “dry-runs,” that deliver and confirm the accuracy of the radiation dose, to ensure patient safety.
This focus on safety is a core value in the treatment of each patient and is a part of the very culture of the department.
Learn more about radiation safety measures at Dana-Farber.