Radiation Therapy For Cancer: What Should I Expect?



For many patients with cancer, your oncologist may recommend radiation treatment in addition to or instead of chemotherapy and surgery.  This therapy involves using x-rays aimed at the tumor and surrounding areas to destroy the cancer cells.

Radiation therapy can be curative for solid tumors, like breast, prostate and head and neck cancer, that have not spread to other parts of the body. It is also very helpful in controlling pain associated with tumors that are compressing normal organs.

Radiation therapy is given by a medical doctor called a radiation oncologist.  This doctor will evaluate your individual case and see what kind of radiation treatment is right for you.  During the initial visit, the radiation oncologist will often need to perform a CAT scan to see the area of the body that needs radiation.  In some cases, especially in head and neck cancer, it is necessary for you to be in nearly the exact same position with each radiation treatment, so he or she will make a plastic mask contoured to your face that you will wear during each treatment.  The CAT scan images will be used mark the tumor to be irridiated, while sparing as much normal tissue as possible.

After about a week or sooner your radiation oncologist will begin your treatment.  Each type of cancer is different in regards to how many sessions of treatment you will need, but generally expect to get radiation five days a week (Monday through Friday at most centers) for several weeks.  Each treatment will last about thirty minutes to an hour.  Radiation treatment is painless and often produces no noticible symptoms for the first week or two.  However, some patients report fatigue and other symptoms related to the part of the body being treated, such as diarrhea and bladder irritation.  Also, patients may notice a “sunburn” in the area of the skin being irridiated.  This can in many cases be helped with skin cream supplied by your doctor.  Your radiation oncologist will see you once a week while you are being treated to monitor your general state of health and to ensure your treatment is going well.

For prostate and some gynocologic cancers your radiation oncologist may recommend brachytherapy.  This is a type of radiation therapy where radioactive pellets are inserted into your body to allow radiation be given directly to the tumor, which may decrease side effects.  For prostate cancer, these pellets are inserted during an office visit by using a needle which is injected into the area of the prostate.  For gynological cancers, like cervical cancer, a radioactive pellet will be inserted into the vagina for as short as several minutes to as long as two to three days, depending upon the cancer and the type of treatment used.  These techniques allow a higher dose of radiation to be given to the tumor wihtout harming the surrounding healthy tissue.

No matter what type of radiation therapy is used, the radiation oncologist will continue to see you for a while after treatment to monitor your disease and to see if any problems develop due to your radiation treatment.  Some side effects that can develop after being treated with radiation include: problems with your bowels or bladder, skin thickening and fibrosis, and the development of a second cancer in the area that has been treated.

For many patients, radiation therapy, along with chemotherapy and surgery, can offer hope of a cure.  For others, radiation can significantly decrease intractable pain seen with widespread disease.  For further information talk to your oncologist.

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NOTE: The contents in this blog are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or a substitute for professional care. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional before making changes to any existing treatment or program. Some of the information presented in this blog may already be out of date.
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