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What is Radiation Therapy?

Radiation Therapy or radiotherapy is the delivery, either externally or internally, of radiation using ionizing radiation to treat cancer and other diseases.

How does radiation work?

The DNA in cancer cells are damaged keeping the cancer cells from growing and reproducing. The cancer cells die and the cancer shrinks.

Will the treatment hurt? Can it be felt?

It will feel like you are having an x-ray taken. However, possible unwanted side effects may occur. Your skin covering the area affected by radiation therapy may feel like a sunburn. You will need to protect this area from the sun.

Does the treatment make me radioactive?

Radiation delivered externally will not cause you to become radioactive. Internally delivered radiation through a radioactive implant may limit or restrict visiting time with certain people until the implant is removed. These would include pregnant women and small children. These precautions, if necessary, will be explained by your doctor or nurse.

What are the risks of radiation therapy?

It is possible that normal cells surrounding the cancer cells being treated may be damaged. You may experience side effects should this occur. The benefits of killing cancer cells usually outweigh the risk of side effects. Your radiation oncologist and your nurse will carefully monitor any side effects.

Will I experience side effects from radiation therapy?

The type, dose and area of the body being treated with radiation will determine any possible side effects. There are ways to prevent or reduce potential side effects. Your doctor will explain these to you.

What are the possible side effects?

Fatigue and skin irritation at the treatment site are the most common side effects. Depending on the dosage and area of the body receiving treatment, other possible side effects may include:

  • If treatment is given to the mouth, throat or neck area, you may experience a sore mouth or throat.
  • If you are being treated in the lung area, you may produce excess mucus and may have a cough.
  • If you are being treated in the abdominal area, you may encounter mild nausea and/or diarrhea.

After 4 to 6 weeks following treatment, most side effects disappear. Long term, you may notice changes in the color and elasticity of the skin where the treatment was given.

There may be medications to counteract some side effects. Before you begin treatment, please discuss any concerns you have about side effects and possible ways to avoid or treat them with your radiation oncologist.

Will I become sick during treatment?

Unless they are being treated in the abdominal area, most patients do not experience any nausea. However, there are effective medicines to reduce or treat nausea, so if you experience nausea, please report it to your doctor as soon as possible.

Will I lose my hair?

Unless you are receiving radiation treatment on the head, the hair on your head will not fall out. Some hair loss can be expected in the location where the treatment is performed. You may lose the hair on your arm if that is where you receive radiation therapy, for instance.

How long will I be treated?

Typically, daily treatments, or fractions, are delivered daily Monday through Friday over a 5 to 7 week period of time. You will not be treated on Saturday or Sunday. Each daily treatment takes about 15-30 minutes.

Who gives the radiation treatments?

Doctors, known as radiation oncologists, specialize in radiation therapy. Your treatment will be prescribed by your radiation oncologist. The most appropriate method to deliver your treatment will be determined by team of other professionals who will work very closely with your radiation oncologist. Some of the healthcare professionals you may encounter are as follows:

  • Radiation physicists work closely with the doctor in planning your treatment. They are also responsible for maintaining all of the machines to assure that the proper dosage is being delivered.
  • Dosimetrists specialize in determining the radiation dose delivered pursuant to the tumor and surrounding normal tissues in accordance with your treatment plan.
  • Radiation therapists position you and make sure the linear accelerator delivers your treatment properly.
  • Radiation oncology nurses educate you and your family about your treatment plan, coordinate the plan, and manage any side effects you experience.

Can a friend or family member come with me?

We always welcome friends and family; however, they will be asked to stay in the waiting room during your treatment. Patients only are allowed in the radiation controlled area when radiation is being administered per federal regulations. It is also respectful of others’ privacy.

Will radiation treatment affect my regular routine?

Your normal routine, including work or leisure, may continue during radiation treatment. You should maintain a healthy diet and get plenty of sleep. If you get tired, take time to rest.

Will I be alone during radiation therapy?

It would be a long-term health risk for radiation therapists to be in the room with you during treatment. They treat many patients each day and radiation effects accumulate. You will be under constant observation during the treatment. Video cameras and an intercom are in the treatment room, so the therapist can always see and hear you. You will be able to ask for assistance at any time. If you need help, the therapist will terminate the treatment immediately.

What is brachytherapy used for?

The types of brachytherapy administered here at Central Alabama Radiation Oncology are early stage breast cancer and gynecological cancers. Your oncologist will discuss this with you if this treatment is best for you.