Photograph hand X-ray picturegrams.
Source: Museum Victoria
Question: I know that X-rays are often used to diagnose medical problems, but is it true that they are also used as a form of treatment as well?
Answer: Yes. X-rays were used for treatment purposes very soon after their discovery. German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays in 1895 and they were being used by Dr F.J. Clendinnen here in Melbourne by the end of 1896 for the treatment of skin conditions including cancer. In 1901, Roentgen was awarded the very first Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery.
It was recognised that X-rays could damage human tissue, so if this tissue was cancerous, the use of X-rays as a curative treatment was then possible. Radiation biology emerged as a science and radiation protection became a requirement of all use of X-rays, whether diagnostic or therapeutic.
Specialist education produced therapy radiographers (now called radiation therapists) who became skilled in applying X-rays to cancerous tumours with minimal harmful dose to surrounding healthy tissues and structures. With the introduction of computers in the 1970s, individual treatments could be planned (or modelled) for each cancer patient.
The modern X-ray source is a linear accelerator which produces electron beams with a range of energies and typically two X-ray energies. The linear accelerator is computer controlled and modern machines are image guided.
Radiation therapy is used for cure or palliation in many patients with cancer as either a sole treatment or in conjunction with surgery and/or chemotherapy.