Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy X-rays for the treatment of disease, primarily cancer. Radiation can be an effective treatment for many cancers, and is designed to work by preventing cancer cells from growing and multiplying. Radiation damages the tumor cells and can help prevent them from dividing. The goal is to slow or stop the growth of the tumor. In many cases, the tumor may be completely destroyed.
For additional questions you may have about radiation therapy – or any cancer-related question – please ask our cancer expert.
What is radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy X-rays for the treatment of disease, primarily cancer, and safely administered externally (through the skin into a patient’s underlying tissues). Radiation can be an effective treatment for many cancers, and is designed to work by preventing cancer cells from growing and multiplying. Radiation damages the tumor cells and can help prevent them from dividing. The goal is to slow or stop the growth of the tumor. In many cases, the tumor may be completely destroyed.
Is radiation therapy painful?
No. Most patients have no sensation of radiation when the machine is delivering the daily treatment. A few patients report a slight warming or tingling sensation in the area while the radiation machine is on.
Does radiation therapy cause side effects?
There are potential side effects of radiation therapy that depend greatly on your health factors, type of cancer and location of cancer. Side effects vary in occurrence and type from patient to patient; some patients have few to no side effects. Common side effects include fatigue and, for some patients, irritation to the skin.
Skin Reaction: Many factors go into whether a patient would experience a skin reaction to radiation therapy (body type, underlying health issues, whether the patient is on additional medications or chemotherapy, etc.). Although some patients do have skin reactions, many do not, and technologies in radiation therapy have made it easier to plan and deliver treatment so that the patient avoids uncomfortable side effects.
Fatigue: Fatigue is often unpredictable and can seem different from day to day, which makes it hard to plan around it. Sometimes, doctors can discover other causes for the fatigue and develop a treatment plan for that, as well.
Does radiation treatment make a person lose his or her hair?
Radiation therapy is a local treatment, meaning it only affects the area of the body where the tumor is located. People do not lose their hair from having radiation therapy, unless it targets a part of the body that grows hair, such as the scalp.
Can patients assume a normal lifestyle during radiation therapy?
For the most part, yes. The treatment takes only 15-30 minutes each day. The course of treatment is usually 5 days a week for 2-8 weeks. Of course, we encourage those undergoing radiation to eat well and get plenty of rest but, otherwise, you should be able to retain a normal lifestyle with minimal restrictions.
Does radiation therapy make a patient radioactive?
External-beam radiation does not make a patient radioactive. During temporary, internal radiation treatments, while the radioactive material is inside the body, the patient is radioactive; however, as soon as the material is removed, the patient is no longer radioactive. For these types of treatments, the patient will usually stay in the hospital in a special room that shields other people from the radiation.
I’ve heard something recently about "radiation during surgery"? What is that?
It is a treatment option where, during surgery, a doctor removes a cancerous tumor and, immediately following, a radiation oncologist applies a concentrated dose of radiation directly to the tumor bed. This type of treatment option is relatively new and not the standard of care for radiation treatment.
It is currently a technology that is offered locally (in Linn County) only through a clinical trial, as research continues to be conducted to determine its effectiveness. Because of this, it is only offered to early stage breast cancer patients and only a small group of patients who would meet certain criteria. Doctors don’t agree on whether intraoperative radiation therapy is a good alternative to whole-breast radiation after lumpectomy, which is the standard of care. More research is being done to help figure out which women may be good candidates for intraoperative radiation therapy during lumpectomy instead of whole-breast radiation after lumpectomy.
Read additional questions and answers about radiation during surgery.
What are the radiation treatments like?
You will be asked to lie on a treatment table in a certain position and hold very still. The treatment machine will move to a predetermined position, and you will not feel or see the radiation. Take a virtual tour of the radiation therapy room.
How long will treatments take?
The treatment takes only 15-30 minutes each day. The course of treatment is usually five days a week for two to eight weeks.
Who will give me my treatments?
The treatments are planned by your radiation oncologist and the medical physicist, the dosimetrist, and administered by the radiation therapists.
What things should I do during treatment?
Continue your normal lifestyle and daily activities. Eat well and get plenty of rest. Do not scrub off temporary marks placed on your skin until told to do so. Do not apply any salves, direct heat or cold, lotions, or other self-remedies to the skin area being treated, unless recommended by your healthcare team.