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A linear accelerator (LINAC) is the device most commonly used for external beam radiation treatments for patients with cancer. The linear accelerator can also be used in stereotactic radiosurgery similar to that achieved using the gamma knife on targets within the brain. The linear accelerator can also be used to treat areas outside of the brain. It delivers a uniform dose of high-energy x-ray to the region of the patient's tumor. These x-rays can destroy the cancer cells while sparing the surrounding normal tissue.
A linear accelerator is also used for Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT)
How does the equipment work?
The linear accelerator uses microwave technology (similar to that used for radar) to accelerate electrons in a part of the accelerator called the "wave guide", then allows these electrons to collide with a heavy metal target. As a result of the collisions, high-energy x-rays are scattered from the target. A portion of these x-rays is collected and then shaped to form a beam that matches the patient's tumor. The beam comes out of a part of the accelerator called a gantry, which rotates around the patient. The patient lies on a moveable treatment couch and lasers are used to make sure the patient is in the proper position. Radiation can be delivered to the tumor from any angle by rotating the gantry and moving the treatment couch.
Who operates this equipment?
The patient's radiation oncologist prescribes the appropriate treatment volume and dosage. The medical radiation physicist and the dosimetrist determine how to deliver the prescribed dose and calculate the amount of time it will take the accelerator to deliver that dose. Radiation therapists operate the linear accelerator and give patients their daily radiation treatments
How is safety ensured?
Patient safety is very important. During treatment the radiation therapist continuously watches the patient through a closed-circuit television monitor. There is also a microphone in the treatment room so that the patient can speak to the therapist if needed. Port films (x-rays taken with the treatment beam) are checked regularly to make sure that the beam position doesn't vary from the original plan.
The liner accelerator sits in a room with lead and concrete walls so that the high-energy x-rays do not escape. The radiation therapist must turn on the accelerator from outside the treatment room. Because the accelerator only gives off radiation when it is actually turned on, the risk of accidental exposure is extremely low. Indeed, pregnant women are allowed to operate linear accelerators.
Modern radiation machines have internal checking systems to provide further safety so that the machine will not turn on until all the treatment requirements prescribed by your physician are perfect. When all the checks match and are perfect, the machine will turn on to give your treatment.
Quality control of the linear accelerator is also very important. There are several systems built into the accelerator so that it won't deliver a higher dose than the radiation oncologist prescribed. Each morning before any patients are treated, the radiation therapist uses a piece of equipment called a "tracker" to make sure that the radiation intensity is uniform across the beam. In addition, the radiation physicist makes more detailed weekly and monthly checks of the accelerator beam.
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