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January 26, 2022

Radiation Therapy FAQs: Helpful Answers for Cancer Patients

Radiation Therapy FAQs: Helpful Answers for Cancer Patients

If radiation therapy is going to be a part of your cancer treatment, you probably have plenty of questions that you’d like answered. Of course, your oncology team is the primary source of answers and they’re happy to address any questions or concerns you may have. But we’ve put together some of the most commonly asked questions from patients about this type of cancer treatment, how it works, and how it will affect your life during and after treatment. As you go through these questions consider jotting down additional questions you come up with so you can ask them at your next appointment.

What is radiation therapy and what are the different types?

Radiation therapy is a form of cancer treatment that uses radiation to kill cancer cells. There are a few different ways the radiation can be administered:

  • External radiation therapy uses a linear accelerator to carefully direct the radiation into the same area of the body during each treatment session. The targeted beams kill the cancer cells so they cannot replicate. The beams are very specifically set so that the cancer is treated from a few different angles. This method is sometimes referred to as external beam radiation.

  • Internal radiation therapy means the radiation is delivered inside of the body. Also called brachytherapy, this type of radiation can be high-dose or low-dose radiation therapy.
    • Low-dose radiation therapy - Small radioactive seeds or pellets are placed inside the body and left there to break down, killing cancer as they do so. The level of radiation does not make you radioactive. This is commonly used to treat prostate cancer.

    • High-dose radiation therapy - Radioactive material is placed in a capsule or ribbon and inserted into the body. Depending on the location of the cancer, the radiation may be left in place for a few minutes or hours and then removed. This process is repeated over the course of a few days to complete the process. You are not considered radioactive during or after treatment.

  • Systemic radiation therapy is administered throughout the entire body rather than a targeted area. This is typically done using radioactive drugs and can be done orally or through an IV.

Why did my oncologist recommend radiation therapy and what type will I need?

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 radiation therapy is used, including:

  • Cure early-stage cancer by killing cancer cells

  • After surgery to ensure the area around the tumor has no cancer cells remaining

  • 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

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.

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. Traditionally, patients go to the cancer center 5 days a week for a short appointment each day over the course of 6 to 8 weeks. Each outpatient appointment is about 30 minutes to an hour in length. Most of that time is spent getting you into the exact correct position for treatment. The actual treatment takes five minutes or less. This is done on an outpatient basis.

A more recent approach called hypofractionated radiation therapy gives the same dose of radiation in a shorter time frame. Rather than a 6-8 week course of radiation therapy, the same results can be achieved in 4-5 weeks by giving a higher dose of radiation at each treatment. The exact number of treatments depends on where the cancer is located, size, and the patient’s overall health condition. The shorter course of radiation treatments is made possible through more advanced delivery methods. By using the technology to precisely aiming the rays of radiation, the cancerous cells are treated with a higher dose while sparing nearby organs and tissues. This is currently used most often for breast, lung and prostate cancers.

An external radiation therapy session lasts 30 minutes to an hour. Most of that time is spent getting you into the exact correct position for treatment. The actual treatment takes five minutes or less. This is done on an outpatient basis.

External radiation therapy doesn’t often require a hospital stay. Because of the frequency of your visits, finding a cancer center that’s close to your home is ideal. CCCB offers radiation therapy in Melbourne, Merritt Island, and Palm Bay, Florida so that it’s convenient for Brevard County residents to receive this type of cancer treatment.

How is radiation used and will I be radioactive while having radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is used in people with cancer. It can be used to shrink a tumor, stop the growth of a tumor, and be used in conjunction with other treatments. It destroys cancer cells that typically otherwise would take over while minimizing damage to healthy cells.

You’re not going to be considered radioactive during an external beam treatment and most internal radiation therapy treatment. Some radiopharmaceuticals will cause the patient to emit some radiation for a short period of time. Your radiation oncologist will address any precautions that should be taken if there is some chance you may emit small amounts of radiation for a period of time.

Is radiation therapy painful?

The treatment itself is usually painless. Patients 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.

What kind of radiation therapy side effects should I expect?

For most patients who receive radiation therapy, there may be mild side effects such as fatigue, sensitive skin or swelling at the treatment site, hair loss in the area of treatment, and/or headaches. Most of the time side effects happen during the treatment and get better after the series of treatments are over. But for some patients, the side effects last even after treatment is over, for some that’s months or years afterwards.

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. For example, for treatment of head and neck cancers, patients occasionally have side effects of dry mouth, sore throat, change in the taste of foods, and potentially, teeth issues. Chest treatment patients may have trouble swallowing, coughing, or shortness of breath.

Can radiation therapy treatment cause cancer?

Radiation therapy can pose a slight increase in your risk of getting another type of cancer. The risk is related to the amount of radiation needed and how long it’s given. It also takes into account how long the patient lives after receiving their radiation therapy.

Giving only the amount of radiation that’s needed is a critical part of the treatment planning process. The radiation oncologist aims the radiation beams to the specific areas of the body that need it while trying to minimize damage to nearby cells and organs.

If your cancer care team has recommended radiation therapy as part of your treatment, the benefits outweigh the risks of developing a second cancer.

Is radiation given before or after surgery or chemotherapy?

Radiation can be the only treatment if cancer is found at an early stage. Sometimes you will have radiation with additional treatments. This depends on the type and stage of cancer that you have. Examples of other treatments can include surgery, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy.

When radiation therapy is given after surgery or chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells and lower the risk of recurrence, that’s called adjuvant therapy. Sometimes radiation is given before surgery or chemotherapy treatments to shrink a tumor, resulting in less invasive surgery or less chemotherapy. This is called neoadjuvant therapy.

Will I be able to work during therapy?

Some people feel well enough to work through their period of time when treatments are given. Talk to your oncologist before your therapy begins to have a clear idea of what to expect and what kind of treatment will be most effective for you. Some people feel well at the beginning of their treatment but feel worn down after a bit of time.

How do I prepare for radiation therapy?

Before your treatment, you will meet your radiation oncology team. When you have your initial appointment, they will discuss expectations, go over your medical records and explain the process. Feel free to ask questions that you may have written down previously. Once you’ve had time to go over the goals of treatment and what to expect, you will undergo a simulation before any radiation therapy is given.

What is a radiation therapy simulation?

Radiation therapy simulations are done prior to your treatments so that the radiation oncology team can create a highly specialized plan based on the size and location of your cancer. They will place you on the table where treatment will be given in the future and they may even mark your body with a permanent marker or tattoo so that the linear accelerator will line up in the exact same spot for every treatment.

Most of the time a CT scan is part of the planning process so that the radiation oncology team can see exactly the size, shape, and location of the tumor. This determines how much radiation should be given and at which angles the beams should come from.

Who will my radiation team consist of?

While not exclusive, your radiation therapy team may include:

Radiation oncologist: A specialist who will watch your treatments and ensure they are done correctly. They will adjust your treatment and care plan or treatment plan according to how you are progressing and any new information discovered.

Medical physicist: This specialist is tailored for the equipment and procedure of the treatments, watching the methods used and making sure that the equipment is working as it should. They work with the radiation beams and follow strict safety measures.

Dosimetrist: This role calculates the dose of the radiation you will receive in accordance with the size of your growth.

Radiation therapist: The therapists work closely with the rest of your care team to provide you with the treatments under a doctor's supervision. They do the documentation and ensure the machinery is working correctly.

Radiation oncology nurses: These nurses will work in the unit or clinic where you receive your radiation therapy. They can provide you with education on what to expect and help manage your symptoms throughout the process.

Will I see my medical oncologist while I’m going through radiation therapy?

The radiation team works closely with your medical oncologist and surgeons to be sure that treatments are working as planned and to discuss the next steps. This means the medical oncologist will be aware of how you’re progressing through the radiation treatments.

Most patients will continue to be seen by the medical oncologist on a regular schedule, even while going through radiation therapy and regularly seeing the radiation oncology team. Talk to your oncologists about appointments that are needed and any blood work that may be needed before meeting with the physician.

How to Make an Appointment with Cancer Care Centers of Brevard

If you need to have radiation therapy as part of your treatment process, there are cancer centers in Brevard County you can use for your daily visits, making it more convenient and less of an intrusion on your schedule. The most advanced radiation therapy treatments are available without a long-distance drive!

Request an appointment at a location near you in Palm Bay, Melbourne, or Merritt Island.

Categories: Cancer Treatments