How does radiation help cancerous cells

Author: Dr. med. habil. Gesche Tallen, editor: Maria Yiallouros, approval: Prof. Dr. med. Dr. h.c. G√ľnter Henze, last changed: 05.06.2020

The so-called anti-tumor effect of a cytostatic is triggered by the typical properties of the respective group of substances to which the cytostatic belongs. The properties of a substance group, in turn, are based on the structure of the underlying vegetable and / or chemical substance.

To understand how a cytostatic agent works, one must first be able to imagine how a cell capable of dividing - regardless of whether it is healthy or sick, benign or malignant - lives.

The life of a cell is determined by its cell cycle. Many different control circuits in the cell, which influence each other and which are based on the interplay of countless proteins and / or genes with different tasks, determine the phases of the cell cycle in their entirety - like an internal clock. They determine when and how often the cell divides, when it matures, when it "sleeps", when it "wakes up" again and divides again, when it ages and when it dies. The healthy interaction of these control loops is no longer available in cancer cells: They have the property of dividing and multiplying particularly quickly.

Chemotherapy and / or radiation therapy (and many other external influences) cause enormous stress in a cell capable of dividing. For a cell, stress basically means that the interaction of its control circuits, especially those responsible for cell division, is damaged at certain anchor points, so that it can no longer follow its internal clock. If the cell cannot repair the damage, it dies.

Most of the molecular building blocks of the various cytostatic substance groups can only intervene in those phases of the cell cycle that are directly related to cell division. In this case one speaks of phase-specific cytostatics. Only a few cytostatics are less dependent on the cell cycle phase in which the cell is in their effect (so-called phase-unspecific cytostatics).

Thus, most cytostatics damage - in different ways - particularly the cells that divide frequently: These include, for example, malignant cells, but also healthy cells of the bone marrow and oral mucosa as well as hair root cells. Rapidly growing tissues are therefore very sensitive to cytotoxic drugs, so that malignant tumors can generally be treated more successfully than benign ones.

Even in fast-growing tissues there are temporarily inactive, resting cells that do not take part in the cycle of division, but can do it again at any time. In order to also reach these tumor cells, phase-specific and phase-non-specific cytostatics are combined with each other as part of a cancer treatment (polychemotherapy).

Cytostatics disrupt the cell metabolism during cell division (mitosis), can destroy the genetic material and thus the genetic information and much more. If the cancer cell dies after the influence of cytostatic drugs (programmed cell death, apoptosis) or matures into a healthy cell (differentiation), the chemotherapy has worked. If the cancer cell can repair the damage caused by the "cytostatic stress", it becomes resistant and the treatment loses its effect.

Information sheets

on fertility and fertility maintenance

Girls / adolescent patients or boys / adolescent patients can find out about the options for maintaining fertility here before cancer treatment.

Information brochures

to fertility

The brochures "Luzie would like to be a mother" and "Mischa would like to be a father" are aimed at young patients with cancer. They provide information on the topic of fertility after cancer therapy and on ways to maintain fertility through preventive and therapeutic measures. With the kind permission of the Berliner Krebsgesellschaft e.V. (publisher) and the author (Prof. Dr. med.Anja-Borgmann-Staudt) you can download the brochure here as a PDF.