What is Radiation Therapy?
Radiation therapy (or radiotherapy) is the use of high-energy rays (ionizing radiation) to kill cancer cells. Radiation works by damaging the genetic material in cells. After radiation treatment ends, cancer cells will keep dying for days or even months.
For some people with cancer, radiation therapy is the only treatment needed. For others, radiation is given before, during or after chemotherapy, biotherapy or surgery. The goal of radiation is to damage as many cancer cells as possible without harming healthy tissue. To minimize damage to healthy cells, radiation doses are calculated very precisely. Treatment areas are carefully defined and treatment is spread-out over time.
Common side effects from radiation therapy are fatigue and skin changes, like redness, dryness or itching, at the site of treatment. Other side effects are specific to the part of the body being treated.
How Is Radiation Therapy Given?
External Radiation Therapy
External Radiation Therapy utilizes a machine which aims high-energy rays at the specific area of the body to be treated. Before treatment begins, a radiation oncologist uses a process (called simulation) to define where to aim the radiation. Very precise measurements are taken and special markings are placed on the skin to carefully identify the treatment area.
Treatments are typically given once a day, five days a week, for several weeks. Sometimes treatment is given in smaller doses twice a day. Radiation does not hurt while it is being given and patients receiving external radiation are not radioactive.
Normally, radiation treatment is given at an outpatient clinic or radiation treatment center. Some people feel very tired as they proceed further along in their course of radiation, but many people are able to arrange their daily radiation appointments around work or other activities.
Internal Radiation Therapy
Internal Radiation Therapy is the placement of a radiation source inside your body. Seeds, ribbons or capsules placed in or near cancer cells deliver a dose of radiation directly to the tumor. Internal radiation can also be given in a liquid form, which is swallowed or injected through a vein.
Depending on the type of internal radiation therapy, some patients need to stay in the hospital until their body no longer gives off radiation at a high level. If you receive this therapy, very specific instructions about how to take care of yourself and others will be given to you and your family.
Newer strategies for radiation treatment incorporate the use of computer technology to even more precisely target cancer and spare healthy tissue.
Questions to Ask Your Radiation Oncologist
You may want to ask your radiation oncologist some of the questions below to learn more about radiation therapy treatment for cancer:
- What kind of radiation will I get?
- How many days/weeks will my treatment last?
- Should I arrange for help driving to and from treatment appointments?
- How should I take care of the area being treated?
- What side effects should I expect and how will we manage them?
Take the time to familiarize yourself with the methods and all sources of information involved with this type of treatment. And, always get a second opinion if you are unsure about deciding upon this line of treating your cancer.