Questions You May Have About Radiation Therapy

How does radiation therapy work?

All cells in our body, including healthy and cancerous cells, grow and divide. However, cancer cells grow and divide more rapidly than many of the normal cells around them, making them more sensitive to radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses special equipment to deliver high doses of radiation to cancerous tumors, destroying the genetic material of the cells which kills or damages them so they cannot grow, multiply, or spread. Radiation may affect healthy cells; however, most normal cells appear to recover fully from the effects of the treatment. Unlike chemotherapy, which exposes the entire body to cancer-fighting chemicals, radiation therapy affects only the tumor and the surrounding area.

How is radiation therapy given?

Radiation therapy can be given externally or internally (called brachytherapy). During external radiation, the most common type of radiation therapy, a machine directs high-energy rays at the cancer and some normal surrounding tissue. In brachytherapy, a radioactive source is implanted directly into the cancerous area. The implants can be permanent or temporary.

Who gives radiation therapy treatments?

Radiation therapists administer radiation therapy treatments, under a radiation oncologist’s prescription and supervision.

Will I be radioactive?

Even though the effects of radiation are powerful, you will not become permanently radioactive. External radiation therapy only affects targeted cells for a moment. With brachytherapy, your body may emit a small amount of radiation for a short time. If the radiation is contained in a closed implant, the radioactive material cannot escape, but precautions, such as limitation of visitors, are taken anyway. If you receive therapeutic radiopharmaceuticals you’ll have a higher level of radiation in your body and will have to take more precautions.

How will my treatment be planned?

Your Cooper radiation oncologist will decide how much radiation you need, how it should be delivered, and how many treatments you should have. He’ll evaluate your cancer, which includes a review of your medical history, a physical exam and scanning tests (including X-rays and computed tomography scans). After determining the best way to deliver radiation therapy for your cancer, your radiation oncologist will oversee a simulation of your treatment to ensure that the appropriate radiation dose is delivered to the right location, and that as little radiation as possible is delivered to normal tissue. This is followed by a set-up visit to test the equipment that will be used to deliver your treatment and position any shields to protect healthy tissue or devices to help you lie still during the treatment. After that, you begin your treatment visits.

Will I lose my hair from radiation therapy?

You will only lose hair in the area being treated with the radiation.

Can I continue my normal activities during radiation therapy?

Most patients can continue many of their normal activities during radiation therapy.

Questions You May Have About External Radiation Therapy

How long does radiation therapy take?

Each radiation therapy treatment takes about 10 minutes. Radiation therapy to try and cure cancer is usually delivered daily, Monday through Friday, for about five to eight weeks. Weekend breaks allow normal cells to recover. Shorter durations of radiation therapy may be used to relieve symptoms.

What happens during each treatment visit?

External radiation treatments, done on an outpatient basis, are painless and like having a regular x-ray.

The treatment takes only a few minutes, but each session lasts about 15 minutes because of the time it takes to set up the equipment and place you in the correct position.

You will lie on the treatment table, positioned under the radiation machine. The radiation therapist may put special shields (or blocks) between the machine and other parts of your body to help protect normal tissues. You should remain still during the treatment, but you do not have to hold your breath.

Once you are in the correct position, the radiation therapist will go into a separate, nearby room to turn on the machine and watch you on a monitor. You’ll be able to communicate with the therapist through an intercom. X-rays may be taken to confirm the accuracy of your treatment.

What side effects should I expect?

Most side effects of external radiation therapy are related to the area that is being treated and go away within a few weeks after treatment ends. These side effects are not usually serious and can be controlled with medication or diet. Many patients have no side effects from radiation therapy.

Common side effects are fatigue and skin changes in the treatment area (e.g., redness, irritation, and dryness). Feeling tired and lacking energy is the most common symptom reported by cancer patients who have radiation therapy. Skin changes include red (sunburned looking), irritated, or dry skin in the area being treated. Hair loss is possible if radiation is delivered to the head.

Questions You May Have About Brachytherapy

What is Brachytherapy?

Brachytherapy is the use of radiation inside the body, as close as possible to the cancer cells. With brachytherapy, you can receive a higher total dose of radiation in a shorter time than is possible with external radiation therapy. Instead of using an external radiation machine, the radioactive material is sealed in a thin wire or a catheter (hollow tube) and implanted directly into the cancerous area. Implants can be temporary or permanent.

Brachytherapy concentrates the radiation on the cancer cells and lessens radiation damage to the normal tissue near the cancer.

When is brachytherapy used?

Brachytherapy is used when your doctor decides that the best way to treat your cancer is with a higher dose of radiation delivered inside your body. Brachytherapy may be used for many types of cancer, including brain tumors, breast cancer, gynecological cancer (e.g., cervical and ovarian), head and neck cancer and lung cancer.

How is the implant placed in the body?

Some implants are placed in the body during an outpatient procedure; others require general or local anesthesia and a hospital stay.

How long does brachytherapy take?

How long brachytherapy takes and whether it is done on an outpatient or inpatient basis depends upon the type of internal radiation therapy used and the nature of the cancer. Internal radiation therapy can be completed as quickly as three to five outpatient treatments of a few minutes each over several days. Some types of internal radiation therapy are left in place for up to a week and require a hospital stay during this period.

What side effects should I expect?

You probably will not have severe pain or feel ill during implant therapy. You may feel discomfort where the catheter is placed. If general anesthesia was used to implant the catheter, you may feel temporary drowsiness, weakness, or nausea. Ask for medicine to help you relax or to relieve pain. Also, report any burning, sweating, or other unusual symptoms to the nurse right away.

What happens after the temporary implant is removed?

The treated area may be sore or sensitive for some time after brachytherapy, but most patients can return to normal activities quickly. You may need extra sleep or rest while your body recovers from treatment.

What happens to the permanent implants?

Permanent implants can safely remain in place. Once the radiation is gone, the implant capsules become inactive and cause no harm.

Contact Us

For an appointment with an MD Anderson Cooper cancer expert, please call 855.MDA.COOPER (855.632.2667).