Radiation therapy – what to expect
Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy waves called radiation to treat cancer cells. Machines aim specific amounts of radiation at tumors or parts of the body where there is/was disease to kill cancer cells or keep them from spreading. Your Radiation Oncology Team can provide you with information on your treatment plan.
Watch our detailed education video
A new video with patient stories aims to better prepare patients for radiation therapy. Take a 12.5 minute tour to learn what happens during cancer radiation treatment.
What are the types of radiation therapy?
External radiation therapy is given from a special machine (called a linear accelerator) and never becomes radioactive. Internal radiation therapy is when the source of radiation is placed inside the body near the cancer cells. The length of time the implant is in place depends on the type of implant received.
Why is radiation given?
Radiation therapy is used to treat cancer and a few other diseases, as well as to relieve pain, pressure, and other side effects when a cure is not possible. The term palliative is often used to describe this process for terminally ill people.
What should I expect on my first visit
A doctor will review your medical records and X-rays before performing a physical exam. The therapist will outline the treatment area on your skin with a marker, and after a few treatments, tiny permanent dots (called tattoos) can be used to replace the painted marks.
According to Dr. David Lathrope, the goal is to deliver a high dose of radiation to the tumor while avoiding harmful radiation exposure to normal tissues.
What to expect during radiation treatments
Treatments are usually given five days a week for six to seven weeks, or 2-3 weeks if the goal of treatment is palliative (to control symptoms). Using many small doses (fractions) for daily radiation helps protect healthy cells. Radiation is painless. You will not see, hear, or smell radiation. Breathe normally during treatments.
Ask your doctor about the possible side and late effects of your type of radiation therapy. Fatigue (tiredness) is a side effect that anyone undergoing radiation can experience. Mild or light exercise, such as walking, can help reduce fatigue.
Effects on the skin
Wear loose, soft, cotton clothing over the area being treated; avoid girdles or any tight clothing in the treatment area for at least one year after the last treatment. Do not expose the area to direct sunlight for at least one year after the last treatment.
Cranial (brain) radiation
Hair loss will begin after about two weeks of treatment, and soft scarves or hats are attractive and comfortable as a head cover. Hair loss can be permanent with higher doses of radiation to the brain.
Head and neck radiation
Because the glands that produce saliva (spit) are in the area of radiation treatment, dry mouth can occur, increasing the risk of cavities in the teeth. Newer radiation delivery techniques can help to mitigate some of these side effects.
What can be done about the side effects?
The most important thing you can do to relieve mouth problems is to gargle with a salt and soda solution. If you wear dentures, ask your doctor if you can keep them during treatment. Ask your doctor about special prescription mouthwashes to relieve symptoms and make swallowing easier.
Radiation therapy to the chest can cause a “lumpy” feeling when swallowing, which is caused by esophageal swelling, which can be alleviated by drinking plenty of liquids during meals. Shortness of breath is also a common side effect.
After two weeks of treatment, the skin may become red, blister, and peel; these reactions will subside a few weeks after the last radiation treatment. Some women notice that their breasts are larger and/or firmer than before treatment.
What can be done about side effects?
Avoid heavy exercise that produces a lot of sweat if at all possible; this can cause skin irritation. Surgical and sports bras are acceptable. Ask your doctor/nurse if you can use deodorant to help with body odor.
Upper abdomen (stomach) radiation
Radiation to the upper abdomen can cause nausea and a loss of appetite, and some people may feel queasy for a few hours after their treatment. To manage nausea, eat six small meals a day rather than three larger meals.
Radiation to the pelvis
Radiation to the pelvis (area below the navel) can cause watery, watery stools and burning with urination. Use birth control to avoid pregnancy or reduce the number of bowel movements.
What are the most common side effects of radiation therapy?
When radiation treatment is given to this area, the most common early side effects are fatigue (feeling tired) and skin changes; other early side effects are usually related to the area being treated, such as hair loss and mouth problems.
What does radiation feel like?
Initial symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headache, and diarrhoea, which can occur minutes or days after exposure. High-dose recipients may also experience skin damage ranging from itching to burns, blisters, and ulcers, as well as temporary hair loss.
How long does it take to recover from radiation therapy?
Most side effects fade away within a few weeks to two months after treatment is completed, but some may persist months or years after treatment is completed because healthy cells take time to recover from the effects of radiation therapy. Late side effects can occur months or years after treatment.
Are you awake during radiation therapy?
Many patients expect to feel somethingu2014heat, tingling, painu2014but this is not the case; you will be awake, but your radiation therapy treatment will feel exactly like an x-rayu2014that is, you will not feel any radiation at all.
Does radiation shorten your life?
“Rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells, are more affected by radiation therapy than normal cells, and the body may respond to this damage with fibrosis or scarring, though this is typically a mild process with no long-term problems that significantly impact quality of life.”
Is radiation worse than chemo?
Because radiation therapy focuses on a single area of your body, it may cause fewer side effects than chemotherapy, but it may still harm healthy cells in your body. Radiation side effects include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea.
Does radiation weaken your immune system?
Radiation therapy can affect your immune system, especially if a large amount of bone marrow is irradiated because of its role in producing white blood cells, but it rarely suppresses the immune system to the point of making you more susceptible to infections.
What should you avoid during radiation?
Sodium (salt), added sugars, solid (saturated) fats, and an excess of alcohol are foods to avoid or reduce during radiation therapy. While some salt is required in all diets, your doctor or dietitian can advise you on how much salt you should consume based on your medical history.
What is the first sign of too much radiation?
Radiation sickness can cause weakness, fatigue, fainting, and confusion. It can also cause bleeding from the nose, mouth, gums, and rectum, as well as bruising, skin burns, open sores on the skin, and skin sloughing.
What is the next step after radiation therapy?
You will see your radiation oncologist 3 to 6 weeks after you finish your radiation treatments, and your oncologist may request another scan (CT, PET, or MRI) before the follow-up appointment. You will see your doctor 3 to 6 weeks after you finish your radiation treatment course.
What happens to a tumor after radiation?
Radiation therapy does not kill cancer cells right away; it takes days or weeks of treatment before DNA is damaged enough for cancer cells to die, and cancer cells continue to die for weeks or months after radiation therapy ends.
What is the success rate of radiation therapy?
Patients often respond well to either brachytherapy or external beam radiation in the early stages of disease, with success rates of around 90% or higher.
Can you drive home after radiation treatment?
Will I be able to drive after my radiotherapy treatment? Almost all patients are able to drive while receiving radiotherapy treatment; however, due to fatigue or strong pain medication, driving may not be advised in some cases. Your physician will be able to address your specific situation.
Can you wear a bra during radiation?
Choose soft bras with wide straps: If you’re getting upper body radiation, you might find that your bras are uncomfortable. Bras with wide straps and no underwire won’t dig into or rub against your skin, and breathable fabrics will keep you comfortable.
What are the disadvantages of radiation therapy?
What are the drawbacks of radiotherapy? Radiotherapy can cause side effects such as fatigue, sickness, and runny poo (diarrhoea), and chemoradiotherapy can cause side effects as well.