If your cancer treatment plan includes radiation therapy, you may be wondering about how it works, the side effects, and the actual procedure. Here are some of the most common questions and answers that patients have about radiation therapy.
What is radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams of particles, directed at the body from a machine called a linear accelerator, to kill or damage cancer cells. This is also sometimes referred to as external beam radiation.
There is also radiation therapy delivered inside the body called brachytherapy. This process requires small seeds or pellets of radioactive material to be inserted in the area of the body where cancer cells are located. The radiation is then either left in place for it to break down over time, or if given in higher doses, the seeds are put into place for a short period of time and then removed from the body.
Radiation therapy can be used alone or in combination with surgery, chemotherapy, or immunotherapy. For most patients, radiation is one component of their treatment plan. As one of the most common cancer treatments, more than half of all cancer patients receive radiation therapy.
Why did my oncologist recommend radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy is an effective tool in treating cancer and reducing cancer symptoms. It’s especially effective on cancers of the lung, breast, prostate, head, and neck. There are several reasons different reasons radiation therapy is used, including:
Cure early-stage cancer by killing cancer cells and tumors
Reduce the size of a tumor before surgery
Stop cancer from moving to another area of your body (metastasize)
Reduce symptoms of advanced cancer such as pain, problems swallowing, breathing, or bowel blockages
Will my oncologist oversee my radiation therapy?
Depending on the type of cancer, you may have your first consultation and the overall cancer treatment plan developed by a medical oncologist. From there other oncology specialists may be included such as a radiation oncologist. Prostate cancer patients are an exception to this and often start with a radiation oncologist.
The radiation oncologist is specially trained in how to determine where to deliver the radiation based on the images they review of the cancer’s location. They also understand the dosing and work with a team to determine a radiation therapy treatment plan.
The radiation oncologist is able to determine which type of radiation therapy will be best for your particular situation.
What type of radiation therapy will I need?
Your oncologist will explain the types of therapy that can provide the best treatment for your individual needs, providing you with the best outcome. In some cases both external and internal radiation therapy are used to be sure the cancer cells in the area are killed.
External beam radiation is the most common type. A machine called a linear accelerator focuses high-energy rays into your tumor. Computer software regulates the beams, so they are precisely targeted and limits radiation exposure to nearby healthy tissue. The machine does not touch you but rotates around the treatment table.
- Internal radiation (brachytherapy) is delivered by implanting a source of radiation (a seed, ribbon, or capsule) directly inside your body near or directly in the tumor. Implants may be permanent or temporary. Internal radiation can also be delivered as a liquid injection or through an IV line into a vein. Liquid radiation travels throughout the body to kill cancer cells. It’s called systemic therapy.
High-dose brachytherapy is delivered internally via a thin tube into or near the tumor. It can also be placed on the skin’s surface for skin cancer. After several minutes of treatment, the radiation is removed from your body. Breast cancer is one exception. The tubes containing the capsules may be left in place for a few days while the radiation is delivered to the area of the breast where cancer was located.
Low-dose brachytherapy is delivered internally as well but at a slower rate. For prostate cancer patients, the seeds implanted for treatment are left there to break down on their own. For other types of cancer, the radiation may be left there for a few days and then removed.
How often will I receive external radiation therapy?
The number of treatments, and the period of time that you’ll receive them, depends on your cancer type and stage. Most patients go 5 days a week to a cancer center for somewhere between 6 and 8 weeks.
An external radiation therapy session lasts 30 minutes to an hour. Most of that time is spent getting you into the correct position for treatment. The actual treatment takes five minutes or less. This is done on an outpatient basis.
Because of the frequency of your visits, finding a cancer center that’s close to your home is ideal, especially in the Chicago area.
Is radiation therapy painful?
It’s usually painless, but you may need to lay in an uncomfortable position for a short period during planning and treatment. Brachytherapy may require surgery to implant a source of radiation. High doses may require laying in a specific position to keep the radiation in place during treatment.
Does radiation therapy cause side effects?
There may be mild side effects such as fatigue, sensitive skin or swelling at the treatment site, hair loss in the area of treatment, or headaches. Side effects can happen during treatment and stop after treatment ends. Or, they can last for a long time; or even appear months or years after your treatment ends. Hair loss is not a side effect of radiation unless your head is being treated.
Other side effects depend on where the radiation treatment is focused and how much radiation you receive:
Head or neck treatment can cause dry mouth, problems swallowing, sore throat, loss of taste, mouth sores, or tooth decay.
Chest area treatment may cause cough, shortness of breath, or swallowing problems.
Liver, brain, or stomach/intestines treatment can cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, especially if you have advanced-stage cancer over a large area that requires a large radiation dose.
Pelvic area treatment may cause diarrhea, bladder irritation, frequent urination, or sexual dysfunction. Radiation can harm an unborn baby.
Always let your radiation oncology team know if you have any side effects because there are ways to ease your symptoms.
Will I be radioactive while having radiation therapy?
Generally, you are not radioactive. Some brachytherapy treatments will require you to stay away from others for a short period of time while the radiation breaks down. With external radiation, the body does not retain the radiation. There’s no need to worry about transmitting radiation to others around you or with whom you have close contact.
Can radiation therapy cause cancer?
Radiation therapy can pose a slight increase in your risk of getting another type of cancer. That’s why it’s so critical that the radiation oncologist plans your treatment to deliver only what is needed to the areas of the body that need it. You’ll want to feel certain that the benefits outweigh the risks. Risk also varies according to where your cancer is and its stage.
Is radiation therapy given before or after surgery or chemotherapy?
Usually, it’s done after surgery or chemotherapy to kill cancer cells that remain after the initial treatment. A combination of these therapies is called adjuvant therapy.
Sometimes radiation is given before those treatments to shrink a tumor. This makes surgery easier and more effective. Research suggests that giving both chemotherapy and radiation before surgery helps reduce the risk of cancer recurring, specifically breast cancer.
If you will be receiving radiation therapy at Affiliated Oncologists, and you have more questions, please be sure to talk to your cancer care team before, during, or after treatments begin. We will always be happy to answer questions and make sure you understand your cancer treatment plan.