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.

From 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.

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.

Find a cancer care location

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.

Find a cancer care location

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 to expect from the treatment.

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

Find a cancer care location

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.

Find a cancer care location

cancer waiting room at one of many cancer locations at allina health 184x279

Find info and support that works for you

We offer educational resources by Allina Health's Cancer Institute providers on a variety of cancer types, and work to address the needs of the Twin Cities metro and surrounding areas through our many hospitals and cancer centers. Browse these offerings and discover why we’re the right partner for your care.
cancer waiting room at one of many cancer locations at allina health 328x164

A spectrum of support

Clinical treatment is just one of the ways we provide expert care for people and families living with cancer. From money matters to holistic healing programs, our team is committed to serving you as a whole person—body, mind and spirit.

cancer support financial services

Financial services

Patient account representatives can answer your questions about hospital bills or insurance coverage. They also can help you access Allina Health Financial Assistance Services.

Learn more about financial services support

nurse navigator

Nurse navigators

A nurse navigator is a registered nurse who will support, educate and guide you through your course of treatment.

Learn more about oncology nurse navigators

cancer support through nutrition therapy

Nutrition therapy

Registered dietitians can assess your food needs and help you set goals to improve eating and manage weight.

Talk with your cancer care provider about the variety of dietitian and nutrition services that are available.

cancer support groups

Support groups

Support groups are designed for people and families affected by cancer. These groups provide a place to connect with others and share thoughts, feelings and ask questions.

Search events and classes

View cancer support groups

cancer support through holistic medicine

Penny George® Institute for Health and Healing

The Penny George Institute helps you improve your well-being by focusing on your whole being—mind, body and spirit.

Learn more about the Penny George® Institute for Health and Healing

cancer support via advanced care planning

Advance care planning

Advance care planning is the process of giving information to others about your health care choices in case illness or injury prevents you from telling them yourself.

Learn more about advance care planning

Know what to expect

A cancer diagnosis can change your life in an instant. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed, confused or anxious about what to do next. That’s why we make it easy to find the information and resources you need at this difficult time.