Radiation therapy cancer treatment

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation (X-rays) to shrink or destroy cancer cells. During treatment, healthy cells are also affected by the radiation. To decrease the risk to healthy cells, the radiation will be given in a way to reduce your exposure. Your radiation oncology team will help you get through the treatments feeling the best you can, with the least amount of side effects.

quoteFrom the beginning of my cancer treatment, at every juncture I felt cared for and respected, as well as, able to ask any and all questions. Through each procedure, I definitely felt listened to as they explained what was going on.

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Side effects of radiation treatment

You will have the same amount of radiation every day. Radiation may have side effects. They may not begin with the first treatment and they may continue beyond your last treatment. The following are possible side effects you may have:

  • Fatigue: Tiredness can result from your cancer treatment. Some people do not have fatigue and others may have fatigue in different degrees. Being tired can keep you from doing your normal activities.

  • Loss of appetite: It is normal not to have much of an appetite at this time. Try to maintain your weight. Losing weight means you are not eating enough and this may make you more tired.

  • Pain: You may have some discomfort from the cancer or the treatments and may be prescribed medicine for the pain.

  • Diarrhea: Occasionally, radiation treatments can cause diarrhea. You are at risk for dehydration (fluid loss) when you have diarrhea, so drinking plenty of liquids is important.

  • Skin irritation: Skin irritation is common during radiation treatments. The radiation must pass through your normal skin cells to reach the cancer cells.

  • Nausea: Radiation treatments may make you feel sick to your stomach. You may need medicine to relieve this feeling.

 

Common radiation treatment questions and answers

You will have a planning session with your radiation oncology team before your first radiation treatment. This is called a simulation.

During a simulation, your radiation therapists and doctor will map out the area to be treated with radiation therapy. This planning session usually lasts one to two hours.

  • To make sure your body stays in the proper position during treatment, moldable plastic may be used to keep you from moving.
  • If your treatment is to your brain or head and neck area, a plastic mask will be made. A mouth guard or bite block may also be made.
  • The radiation therapist will use a marker to mark the area that will be treated. Measurements may also be taken of your body to define the treatment area to be tattooed (be made permanent) on your skin.
  • It is important to not wash off or remove the marks that were placed on your body during the simulation. The radiation therapist will give you special instructions on how to keep your marks in place.
  • Your doctor and other team members (such as dosimetrists and physicists) will plan and design a treatment just for you.

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During each treatment you can expect the following:

  • The therapists will position you on the treatment table. They will use the marks made on your body during the planning session.
  • You will be alone during the treatment. The therapists will watch you closely on a TV monitor and listen to you on an intercom.
  • You may hear a buzz from the treatment machine (called a linear accelerator) when you are receiving the radiation.
  • The treatment machine may give you radiation from different angles.
  • The radiation therapy treatments are painless.

Talk with your radiation therapist, radiation oncologist or nurse if you have any questions or concerns about the radiation treatments or side effects.

As with any medical treatment, radiation therapy has some long-term side effects and risks.

Long-term side effects can include a change in your skin pigmentation (either a darkening or lightening of your skin) in the treatment area.

Long-term risks are that radiation therapy may not destroy all of the cancer, or the cancer may return. Talk with your doctor about what he or she expects from the treatment.

There may be other possible permanent or late side effects. Your radiation oncologist will review these with you.

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After your last radiation treatment, you may remove the marks on your body. You will be given more information when you finish the treatment. Sometimes the cancer will continue to shrink for several weeks after you finish your treatments.

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