Frequently Asked Questions
- What is radiation therapy (RT)?
- How does radiation therapy work?
- Will radiation therapy make me radioactive?
- How does it feel to receive radiation treatments?
- What are the benefits and risks of radiation therapy?
- What are the possible side effects associated with radiation therapy?
- Who will administer my treatments?
- How often will I have radiation treatments?
- What can I do to help myself during therapy?
1. What is radiation therapy (RT)?
Radiation is a kind of energy created by waves or streams of particles emitted by specialized machines or radioactive substances. The use of these high-energy rays or particles to treat disease, most often cancer, is called radiation therapy. Physicians specializing in this field are called radiation oncologists.
Radiation therapy treats cancer by targeting and destroying cancerous cells in your body. Although RT is similar to having an X-ray taken of your broken bone, the dose of radiation in cancer treatment is stronger and is given over a longer period of time. Many forms of radiation are available. The best choice depends on the type of cancer you have, the extent of the disease and its location.
There are several ways to deliver therapeutic radiation to treat cancer, many of which are discussed in Services & Technology. Your radiation oncologist will explain how RT may benefit you.
2. How does radiation therapy work?
High doses of radiation can kill cells or keep them from growing and dividing. Because cancer cells grow and divide more rapidly than normal healthy cells, radiation therapy is used to keep these cells from reproducing. Normal cells will also be affected by radiation, but they recover more fully from radiation’s effects than do cancer cells. Your physician will plan your treatment to limit damage to healthy cells while killing the cancer cells.
3. Will radiation therapy make me radioactive?
No. After treatment, you will not be radioactive. You can continue to enjoy the same contact with your family and friends as before your diagnosis without fear of exposing them to radiation. If you are treated with internal radioactive sources, you will stay in a protected room until the source of radiation is removed. If you need this type of radiation, your doctor will explain it to you in detail.
4. How does it feel to receive radiation treatments?
The treatments do not hurt. X-rays cannot be seen or felt. However, over time, you may experience side effects from your treatment, discussed below.
5. What are the benefits and risks of radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy is an effective way to treat many types of cancer throughout the body. Many people with cancer are successfully treated with radiation and for many patients it is the only kind of treatment needed. Cancer can be treated with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, alone or in combination with each other.
Like any other medical treatment, there are risks for patients receiving radiation therapy. High doses of radiation that damage or destroy cancer cells also can hurt normal cells and when this occurs, there is a potential for side effects. The benefits of killing cancer cells usually outweigh the risk of side effects. The side effects that you may experience depend upon the area being treated. Your physician will discuss all possible side effects with you in full at the time of your consultation.
6. What are the possible side effects associated with radiation therapy?
The side effects of radiation treatment vary from person to person and depend upon the treatment dose and the part of your body that is being treated. Typically, there are two types of side effects: acute and chronic. Acute side effects occur around the time of the treatment and go away within a few weeks of finishing. Chronic side effects may take months or years to develop and can be permanent. The most common side effects are fatigue, skin changes, loss of appetite and hair loss to the area being treated, but, again, this is dependent upon the area being treated. Be sure to tell your physician or radiation therapist if you begin to experience any type of side effect.
Fatigue: During the course of your treatments, your body uses energy to help heal itself. This, combined with the stress related to your illness, daily trips for treatment, and the effects of radiation on normal cells, all contribute to fatigue. Most people who experience fatigue will not do so until a few weeks into their treatment and it will go away after your treatment is finished. If you feel tired, rest. Do not feel that you have to do all the things you normally do. Consider taking time off from work if necessary or reducing your working hours. Have family and friends drive you to and from your daily treatments.
Skin Changes: Over time, your skin in the treatment area may begin to look reddened, irritated, sunburned, or tanned. It may become dry and itchy. Your physician will closely monitor your skin and will prescribe lotion for the area, if necessary. Be very gentle with the skin in the treatment area. Wash using only lukewarm water and mild soap and do not rub, scrub, or scratch any sensitive spots. Avoid heating pads or ice packs. Do not put anything on your skin unless approved by your physician or nurse. Avoid exposing the area to the sun.
Appetite: While it is important to try not to lose weight during treatment, side effects of radiation to certain areas of the body may make it difficult to eat and digest. Try eating small meals often and avoid extreme hot and cold foods. If you have difficulty chewing or swallowing, your physician may recommend a liquid diet supplement to use alone or in combination with small meals. You may lose interest in food during your treatment. Even if you're not hungry, it's important to try and keep your protein and calorie intake high.
Hair Loss: Radiation therapy can cause hair loss only in the area being treated. For most patients, hair grows back again after the treatments are finished. If you have hair loss to your head, consider covering the area with a hat, especially if exposed to the sun.
7. Who will administer my treatments?
Throughout your treatment you will be under the care of a team of specialists led by a radiation oncologist, a medical doctor with highly specialized training in the use of radiation to treat disease. Your radiation oncologist will determine the best method of treatment and the duration of your treatment. This includes the amount of radiation you will receive each day and the total number of treatment days. He/she will supervise all aspects of your treatment and manage any medical problems that may develop. Medical physicists design the radiation treatment plan under the supervision of your radiation oncologist. Your treatments are delivered by a professional licensed radiation therapist. In addition, nurses work closely with your radiation oncologist to help you throughout your course of treatment. The health care team also includes other physicians, social workers, dietitians and chaplains.
8. How often will I have radiation treatments?
Standard radiation treatments will be scheduled every weekday, Monday through Friday, allowing you to rest on Saturday and Sunday (and any holiday). Your daily appointment schedule is a set time and will be given to you after the radiation treatment planning is complete. We will try to accommodate your schedule. Your radiation therapist will notify you of any holidays on which you will not receive treatments. On average, the course of treatment for radiation therapy takes five to seven weeks. This time period enables your body to better tolerate the effects of the radiation. However, depending on the special circumstances, the treatment course can also be longer or shorter.
Scheduling for stereotactic radiosurgery or brachytherapy varies for each patient. Your doctor will customize your treatment plan and explain this to you.
Your radiation oncologist will examine you and review your progress once a week, following one of your daily therapy sessions. On this day allow for an additional 15-20 minutes visit time. The nurses who see you during the check-up will work closely with you and the doctor to help you manage any side effects you may have. This is also the best time to request refills for any medications that you may need to manage side effects.
9. What can I do to help myself during therapy?
Maintaining good nutrition is very important, though we recognize that this is a big challenge for many patients, especially those with certain types of cancer. Try to eat a well-balanced diet. Every day, choose foods from these groups: breads and cereals; meats, eggs or beans; milk or milk products; vegetables and fruits. Try to eat enough food to keep your weight at the same level as before treatment. Your body needs more calories now, so you may need to eat more than usual. A dietitian from the radiation therapy clinic can help you set up a food plan. Tell your physician or nurse if you experience any significant weight loss or weight gain. We will check your weight weekly. If you notice your weight going down, try to drink fluids that are high in calories, such as milk shakes or nutritional supplements.