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Patient education: Radiation therapy (The Basics)

Patient education: Radiation therapy (The Basics)

What is radiation therapy? — Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment. It uses high doses of X-rays, called radiation, to kill cancer cells. There are 2 types of radiation therapy, depending on where the source of the radiation is.

In "external-beam radiation therapy," the radiation comes from a machine that is outside the body. This article discusses external-beam radiation therapy.

In "internal radiation therapy" (also called "brachytherapy"), the radiation comes from a source that is put inside the body

Doctors can use radiation to treat many different types of cancers. Some people are treated only with radiation therapy. Other people have radiation therapy along with other cancer treatments.

What happens before I start radiation therapy? — Before you start treatment, you will meet with a team of doctors and nurses to plan your radiation therapy. They will probably do an exam and tests. They will put a small dot of ink on your body to mark the area that will be treated. They might also make a mold or mask of a part of your body for you to wear during treatment. This is to help keep your body still while you are getting radiation therapy.

What happens during radiation therapy? — People get radiation therapy in the hospital, but they can go home after each treatment. They do not usually need to stay in the hospital. The number of treatments a person needs depends on the type of cancer. Some people get radiation only 1 time. Other people get radiation 1 time a day, 5 days a week, for up to 7 weeks.

For each treatment, you will wear your mold or mask (if you have one) and sit or lie down in front of the machine. You will need to stay still. Your doctor will line up the machine with your dot of ink. That way, the X-rays will travel only through the part of your body with the cancer. The X-rays will not travel through other parts of your body.

It doesn't hurt to get radiation. The machine sends radiation through the cancer and the area right around it for about 1 to 5 minutes.

Your doctor or nurse will give you instructions about what to wear and what you can or can't have on your body. For example, most people should not have bandages, jewelry, or other items on the skin in the area being treated.

What are the side effects of radiation? — People can have different side effects from radiation. The side effects will depend on:

The part of the body being treated – As the X-rays travel through the body, they can damage the skin and the organs or tissues next to the cancer.

The dose of radiation

The number of treatments and the treatment schedule

"Early" side effects are those that happen within hours or days after treatment. Common early side effects include:

Feeling tired, weak, or having no energy – These symptoms can get worse over the course of treatment.

Skin changes – The skin in the area being treated can peel, blister, itch, or turn red.

Other early side effects can also happen. Depending on your treatment, your doctor will talk to you about what to expect.

People can also have "late" side effects from radiation, meaning they happen months or years after their treatment. These can include:

Trouble getting pregnant

Other types of cancers, although these are rare

How are the side effects treated? — Your doctor can treat the side effects in different ways, depending on your symptoms. They will also suggest things that you can do on your own. For example, to ease your skin symptoms, you can:

Use creams that your doctor or nurse recommends

Use sunblock and wear a hat or long sleeves to protect your skin

Not put anything too hot or cold on your skin

Try not to scratch your skin

What else should I do? — When you have radiation therapy, it's important to:

Follow all of your doctor's instructions about treatment and visits

Let your doctor or nurse know about any side effects or problems you have during treatment or if your health changes. You should also let them know if your dot of ink wears off.

Take care of yourself by eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising. To keep your energy up, try to eat foods and drinks with a lot of protein and calories.

More on this topic

Patient education: Brachytherapy (The Basics)
Patient education: Managing loss of appetite and weight loss with cancer (The Basics)
Patient education: Hair loss from cancer treatment (The Basics)
Patient education: Nausea and vomiting with cancer treatment (The Basics)
Patient education: When your cancer treatment makes you tired (The Basics)
Patient education: Managing pain when you have cancer (The Basics)
Patient education: Preserving fertility after cancer treatment in children (The Basics)
Patient education: Preserving fertility after cancer treatment in men (The Basics)
Patient education: Preserving fertility after cancer treatment in women (The Basics)
Patient education: Mouth sores from cancer treatment (The Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jan 01, 2023.
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