Radiation can cure you. Or it can kill you.
Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy or irradiation, refers to the use of ionizing radiation to control malignant cells or shrink tumors within the body of a cancer patient. According to the National Cancer Institute, nearly half of all cancer patients in the United States are treated with radiation therapy, either alone or in combination with other types of treatment such as surgery or chemotherapy. It can be used to treat almost every type of solid tumor, including cancers of the brain, breast, cervix, larynx, lung, pancreas, prostate, skin, spine, stomach, uterus, or soft tissue sarcomas. Radiation can treat leukemia and lymphoma (cancers of the blood-forming cells and lymphatic system, respectively). It may also be used prophylactically to prevent cancer cells from growing in an area.
Since its earliest usages to treat cancer more than one hundred years ago, radiation therapy has evolved dramatically, using complex computer software applications to direct beams of radiation to their target locations in a precisely specified fashion.
But like too much of any good thing, an overdose of radiation can be catastrophic. Since radiation kills cells, both cancerous and healthy, a patient who is over-radiated can suffer a host of gruesome and excruciatingly painful effects.
There are more and more cases surfacing of patients who have been grievously injured by radiation overdoses as a result of software glitches, machine malfunctions, and, less frequently, human error. And there are few, if any, regulations in place that require hospitals and treatment centers to disclose these accidents.
As reported recently, some of the technology is so new that it “has created new avenues for error in software and operation, and those mistakes can be more difficult to detect. As a result, a single error that becomes embedded in a treatment plan can be repeated in multiple radiation sessions.” (The New York Times, 1.27.2010)
The New York Times suggested that hospitals are often lacking in the necessary financial support to operate the sophisticated devices safely, and that manufacturers sometimes sell machines before all the software bugs are identified and removed.
Part of the problem may be in the lack of training for technicians and medical physicists who run the computer programs and radiation machines. Systems of checks and balances also seem to be missing from many treatment facilities, wherein newly installed equipment isn’t set up properly nor is it tested afterward; daily warm-up checks are not carried out; monthly or annual evaluations are overlooked; follow up is absent after patients complete their treatment programs; and sometimes, computer screen displays of erroneous treatments at the time they are given go unnoticed.
With several class action lawsuits currently underway alleging radiation overdoses that occurred in hospitals and clinics nationwide, there is hope that more stringent government and state regulations on disclosure will be enacted, and that overseeing bodies and committees will be put into place.