The History of Radiation Therapy for Cancer

Radiation therapy has been used to treat cancer since its discovery in 1895. Learn more about its history and how it has evolved over time.

The History of Radiation Therapy for Cancer

Since the discovery of X-rays in 1895, radiation therapy has been used to treat cancer. On January 29, 1896, just three days after the announcement of the discovery of X-rays, a single treatment was performed for approximately one hour in patients with breast cancer. Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) was one of the first medical institutions to recognize the potential of radiation for the treatment of cancer and has continued to pioneer new developments in the field ever since. When placed on or near a tumor, radiation causes the mass to shrink, sometimes completely.

However, due to its extreme rarity, the use of radiation in the treatment of cancer was limited. One ton of pitchblenda contains only a few micrograms of the element. MSK radiation oncologists and medical physicists are pioneering real-time computer-assisted visualization and dose calculations to improve brachytherapy for prostate cancer. Intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT) is a form of treatment that delivers radiation at the time of surgery. MSK radiation oncologist Joachim Yahalom published results showing the benefits of combined chemotherapy and radiation in treatment-resistant Hodgkin lymphoma.

The use of ionizing radiation for the treatment of cancer dates back to the late 19th century, shortly after Roentgen described x-rays in 1895 and Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium in 1898. MSK radiation oncologist Josh Yamada published high-dose intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) results for spinal metastases. Quimby developed standard dosage tables for radiation treatment and also developed the radiation film plate as a safety guard against accidental exposure. Moss of Ellis Fishel State Cancer Hospital, Missouri, served as medical director of radiation oncology in the 1950s. He based his analysis on the level of radiation dermatitis seen in patients undergoing XRT for skin cancer. Conformal radiation therapy (CRT) uses CT images and special computers to accurately map the location of a cancer in 3 dimensions. There is now an enormous body of knowledge about the biology of cancer and how radiation affects human tissues at the cellular level.

Advances in radiation physics and computer technology during the last quarter of the 20th century allowed radiation to be targeted with greater precision. Donations came with the stipulation that the hospital focus solely on cancer and that radiation be used in its treatment. Ulrich Henschke, MSK's radioactive oncologist, developed a system for delivering internal radiation by sending a radioactive pellet through a catheter that could be removed after use, called an afterload. Since its inception over 120 years ago, radiation therapy has become an essential tool in treating cancer. With continued research and development, it is likely that this form of treatment will continue to evolve and improve over time.