Radiation therapy is a common treatment for cancer. In this section, we’ll address what to expect before, during, and after radiation treatment.
Before Radiation Therapy
At Affiliated Oncologists, each treatment plan is created to meet the individual needs of the patient, but there are some steps that are taken for each patient. You can expect these steps before beginning treatment:
You will meet with a radiation oncologist who will help determine if radiation therapy is the best option for you and if so, what type of radiation therapy is recommended. Several types of radiation therapy are available at our cancer center in area surrounding Chicago.
The oncologist will review your records, speak with your medical oncologist if one has been involved in your treatment, and may even speak with the surgeon if you’ve had surgery. The radiation oncologist will also perform a medical exam as well as other tests that will help plan your treatment. He or she will also discuss the potential risks and benefits of radiation therapy with you, as well as give you the opportunity to ask any questions you may have.
You will have a simulation session for treatment planning. Your first radiation therapy session is actually a simulation that will prepare you for a true therapy session. Imaging scans such as computed tomography (CT) scan, a magnetic resonance image (MRI), or an x-ray will be used to help identify the specific location of the tumor, or where the tumor used to be.
To help aim the radiation beam precisely at each visit, a “treatment port” or “treatment field” will be marked on your skin. If needed, an immobilizer will be created for you well. This could include tape, molds, headrests, etc. A special mesh mask, known as a thermoplastic mask, may be used if you are receiving radiation therapy to your head or neck. The purpose is to be sure you are in the exact same spot on the table for every single treatment you receive. This will protect healthy cells around the treatment field.
Your comfort during treatment is important to the radiation oncology team, therefore, you should let them know if you feel uncomfortable or anxious during the simulation so they can help find a solution — especially if you are receiving external radiation therapy, which is given multiple times.
Once the simulation is complete, your radiation therapy team will review your information and design a treatment plan using highly sophisticated computer software. Your oncologist will then write a prescription for the specific course of your radiation treatment.
During Radiation Therapy
There are two main types of radiation therapy: external beam radiation and internal radiation therapy. Your experiences will differ based on the type of therapy you receive.
- External Beam Radiation Therapy: This form of radiation comes from a machine located outside the body. Each session is quick and painless, usually lasting no more than 15 minutes. Treatments usually occur five times a week (Monday through Friday) and continue for three to nine weeks. Although the radiation beam is positioned to only target the tumor, some healthy tissue surrounding the tumor may be affected. The two-day break on the weekends allows your body to rest and repair. External beam radiation is the most common radiation therapy for cancer.
- Internal Radiation Therapy: Also called brachytherapy, this type involves placing radiation sources as close as possible to the tumor site. Typically, you will have repeated treatments across a number of days and weeks. In some cases you’ll need to stay immobile for a period of time while the radiation therapy “seeds” are positioned inside the body, or on the skin, to deliver the radiation.
If you will have radiation seeds that are implanted and not removed, such as for prostate cancer, they will be placed using anesthesia while the seeds are placed. Some weakness or nausea may be felt from the anesthesia.
Because there is radiation being delivered from the seeds to the area of your body that needs treatment, you will be given specific instructions for precautions that may need to be taken to protect others from radiation exposure. In some cases you may be admitted to the hospital while the treatment is being given over the course of a few days.
Your progress will be assessed weekly. During your treatment, your radiation oncologist will check how well it is working and whether any adjustments need to be made. Typically, this will happen at least once a week. In some cases, image guidance may be used to ensure the radiation beam is always aimed correctly.
Side effects might be experienced. There are two kinds of radiation side effects: early (acute) and late (chronic). Your radiation oncologist will do everything possible to minimize side effects by making sure the dose is as carefully directed towards the cancerous cells as possible.
Fatigue is the most common acute side effect. Nausea and vomiting may also be experienced. Most acute side effects go away after treatment is done. During treatment, however, your oncologist can prescribe medicine to help.
Your radiation oncologist is a great person to help you with managing the side effects of treatment. Ask him or her for advice regarding your specific concerns.
Personal care will be important. Self care is extremely important while undergoing treatments. The best way to care for yourself is to get extra rest, eat a healthy diet, and seek emotional support. Treating your skin with physician-approved lotions and limiting your sun exposure will also help.
After Radiation Therapy
Once your treatment ends, you will need to see the radiation oncologist for follow-up visits. The Affiliated Oncologists radiation team will schedule follow-up visits to monitor your recovery and watch for any side effects. Your follow-up care might also include other types of cancer treatment, rehabilitation, and counseling.
Late side effects, also known as chronic side effects, may or may not appear after treatment is over. The type of late side effects you could experience depend on where radiation therapy was given on the body. Some patients experience:
- Memory loss
- Fibrosis (restricted movement in the area where treatment was given)
- Bowel damage
- Salivary gland damage
Rarely is another type of cancer caused by radiation therapy. For many patients, the benefits of radiation therapy outweigh the risks.
If needed, continued special care will be given until you are fully healed. Extra rest and limiting your activities may also be required. Additional help will also be given if you are experiencing lingering pain after radiation therapy. Talk with our cancer center staff about anything you may notice.