After being diagnosed with cancer, some people hesitate to receive radiation therapy because they are uncertain about the treatment and its possible side effects. However, your radiation oncologist or another member of the health care team can help you understand this treatment and describe what you can expect. Additionally, here are several answers to common questions about radiation therapy that may help address some of your concerns. Keep in mind, you can always ask your radiation oncologist to answer these or any other questions you may have about radiation therapy.
What is the goal of radiation therapy?
Most people receive radiation therapy in an effort to eliminate all cancer cells as part of a curative treatment approach. In addition to destroying cancer cells and slowing tumor growth, radiation therapy can also be used to shrink tumors and reduce pressure, pain, and other symptoms of cancer in cases when it is not possible to completely eliminate the disease.
How does radiation work?
Radiation therapy works by damaging the DNA in the cancer cell, thereby disabling the cancer cell from reproducing and growing. The cancer cells then die and the cancer shrinks.
Will I feel the radiation or will it hurt?
No, external beam radiation treatments are painless, like having an x-ray taken. Although radiation therapy is not painful, it can cause unwanted side effects. The skin where radiation is aimed may feel like it has been sunburned and will need to be protected from the sun.
Are there risks involved with radiation therapy?
The radiation used to damage or destroy cancer cells can also damage normal cells. When this happens, you may experience side effects. However, the risk of side effects is usually outweighed by the benefits of killing cancer cells. Any side effects will be carefully monitored by the radiation oncologist.
Will I become radioactive?
External beam radiation does not cause you to become radioactive, and you pose no risk of radiation exposure to people near you. If you have a radioactive implant in place, some visitors, such as pregnant women and small children, will not be allowed to get too close and visiting time may be limited or restricted until the implant is removed. Your doctor or nurse will tell you when these precautions are necessary.
What are the typical side effects of radiation therapy?
The most common side effects of radiation therapy reported by patients are fatigue and skin irritation at the site of treatment. Other side effects depend on the area of the body being treated and the dosage being given, such as:
- Dry or sore mouth or throat may occur when treatment is being given in the mouth, throat or neck area.
- Some coughing and excess mucus production may occur if treatment is given to the lung area.
- Mild nausea and/or diarrhea may occur if treatment involves the abdominal area.
Most of these side effects will go away on their own within 4 to 6 weeks after treatment is completed. Some long-term effects may include changes in the color and elasticity of skin in the treatment area. Discuss any concerns you may have about side effects and ask about medications to counteract them with the radiation oncologist before the start of your treatment.
Who will administer my radiation treatments?
A doctor who specializes in radiation therapy is called a radiation oncologist. The radiation oncologist will prescribe the type and amount of radiation treatment that is appropriate and work closely with a team of healthcare professionals in determining the best way to deliver that treatment. Those healthcare professionals may include the following:
- Radiation physicists are experts who make sure the machines are working properly and that they deliver accurate radiation doses. The physicist also works closely with the doctor in planning your treatment.
- Dosimetrists are specialists who work with the doctor and physicist to create the treatment plan and calculate the radiation dose delivered to the tumor and the surrounding normal tissues.
- Radiation therapists are professionals who position you and operate the machines to deliver the radiation treatment on the linear accelerator.
- Radiation oncology nurses are caregivers who will help coordinate your care, manage side effects, and help you and your family learn about your treatment.
What is the difference between chemotherapy and radiation therapy?
Chemotherapy involves medications given by injections or pills for cancer. This type of treatment is circulated throughout the entire body and is generally prescribed by a medical oncologist. Radiation therapy or radiotherapy is produced by a linear accelerator or another radiation source, and is prescribed by a radiation oncologist. The radiotherapy beams are focused on a very specific area of the body, and thus the effects are highly localized.
Can I continue my regular routine/activities while undergoing radiation treatments?
You should continue with your normal routines. Most patients continue full-time occupations or leisure activities through the course of treatments. When you feel tired, do not over exert yourself; take time to rest when needed. Try to get plenty of sleep and maintain a healthy diet.
How long does a course of radiotherapy treatments usually last?
Most radiation therapy treatments are daily, five days per week, for a specified period of one to eight weeks, depending on the disease and the course that your physician prescribes.
Will the radiation therapy make me sick?
Most patients do not experience any nausea with radiation therapy, unless the area being treated with radiation is around the stomach. If you experience nausea, report this and any other symptoms to your doctor. Effective medications exist to reduce and/or prevent your symptoms.
Will I feel anything after my treatment?
Many patients continue with most of their normal activities during treatment — working, golfing, gardening, etc. Depending on the area being treated, however, there may be side effects including fatigue, nausea, “sun-burned” skin, or diarrhea. Your physician can discuss the likely side effects and prescribe medication for some conditions. Making certain that you are taking care of your body’s needs is very important. Maintaining your weight and getting adequate fluids and rest are important goals to consider.
Will I feel any pain from the radiation treatment?
There is usually no pain associated with the radiation treatments. It is very much like having an X-ray taken. Sometimes a sunburn effect may cause the area to be tender.
What are the most common side effects?
The most common early side effects of radiation therapy are fatigue and skin changes. They can result from radiation to any treatment site. Other side effects are related to treatment of specific areas. For example, temporary or permanent hair loss may be a side effect of radiation treatment to the head. Appetite can be altered if treatment affects the mouth, stomach or intestine.
Fortunately, most side effects will go away in time. In the meantime, there are ways to reduce discomfort. If you have a side effect that is significant, the doctor may prescribe a change in your treatments or even give you a temporary break.
Are side effects the same for everyone?
The side effects of radiation treatment vary from patient to patient. You may have no side effects or only a few mild ones through your course of treatment. Some people do experience serious side effects, however. The side effects that you are likely to have depend primarily on the radiation dose and the part of your body that is treated. Your general health also can affect how your body reacts to radiation therapy and whether you have side effects. Before beginning your treatment, your doctor and nurse will discuss the side effects you might experience, how long they might last, and how serious they might be.