Whether you recently began undergoing cancer treatment or are beginning radiation therapy as a new type of treatment, you may have many questions about what to expect.
That’s only natural! Undergoing any type of medical treatment, even when it’s not related to cancer, can be nerve-wracking and a little bit scary. Knowing what to expect can help ease your fears.
If radiation therapy is part of your cancer treatment plan or the treatment plan of someone you love, keep reading to get the facts about this common and effective type of treatment.
How radiation therapy works
Radiation therapy is one of the most common forms of cancer treatment, with more than half of all cancer patients receiving radiation. It can be used as a standalone treatment, or it may be used before or after other types of treatment, like surgery or chemotherapy.
How does radiation therapy work? Radiation therapy, which may also be called radiation or radiotherapy, uses beams of high-energy particles or electromagnetic waves to destroy or damage cancer cells. There are a number of different types of beams that may be used for this purpose, including X-rays, gamma rays, electron beams, and protons.
When the body is functioning normally, the cells within it grow and divide regularly to form new cells. Cancer cells, though, grow and divide rapidly and abnormally—much quicker than normal cells.
Radiation therapy is targeted toward cancer cells. When the beams hit the cancer cells, it causes the DNA inside those cells to break apart, which stops them from growing and eventually causes them to die off.
Radiation is often used as a localized treatment that’s aimed at the area of cancer, but radioactive substances can also be inserted into a vein or given by mouth.
This type of cancer treatment can be used to cure or shrink early-stage cancer before it spreads, but it’s also commonly used after other treatments to prevent a cancer recurrence. In some cases, radiation therapy may also be used to treat symptoms of an advanced cancer or to treat a recurrent cancer.
What to expect during radiation therapy
Your exact experience when undergoing radiation therapy will vary depending on the specific type of therapy you receive. When you think about radiation therapy, the type of radiation called “external radiation” is probably what comes to mind.
During external radiation treatment, also called external beam radiation, high-energy rays are targeted from outside the body into the area of the tumor. Using imaging scans to guide them, your radiation oncology providers will carefully aim the radiation at cancer cells, but in many cases, healthy cells located around the tumor may also be affected.
There are two other types of radiation therapy—internal radiation and systemic radiation. If you’re undergoing internal radiation, also called brachytherapy, a radioactive source will be placed in the body either into or near the tumor.
In some cases, the radioactive substance (a tiny seed or capsule) remains in the body, while in others, it is removed after a period of time. In either case, special safety precautions are needed since the radioactive substance remains in the body for at least the treatment period.
Like internal radiation, systemic radiation therapy is also introduced into the body. With this type of therapy, radioactive medications are given either by mouth or through a vein. Once introduced into the body, the medication travels throughout the body, treating areas where cancer cells are located.
Those undergoing systemic radiation should also take special precautions. For a small period of time after treatment, you may secrete small amounts of radiation through body fluids like sweat and urine.
Possible side effects from radiation therapy
Radiation therapy is a safe and effective method of treating many types of cancer, and it’s been used for more than a century now.
Because radiation therapy is using intense rays or beams to attack cancer cells, it can also cause side effects. Talk with your radiation oncologist or a cancer navigator about what to expect from the specific type of radiation you’re undergoing.
Some patients undergoing radiation don’t experience any side effects at all. For many others, though, side effects begin to emerge during the second or third week of treatment.
The specific side effects you experience from radiation therapy will vary a bit depending on the part of the body where cancer is located. If you’re undergoing external radiation, you may experience skin changes like blistering or peeling in the local area of treatment, along with general fatigue.
Other symptoms will be specific to the part of the body being treated, such as hair loss when treating cancer of the head or neck or gastrointestinal problems when treating cancer of the stomach or pelvis. The same is true for internal radiation therapy, which can cause symptoms in the area where the radioactive substance is placed.
Systemic radiation can also cause fatigue, along with GI issues like vomiting or diarrhea.
You may experience these side effects while you’re undergoing treatment, or they may develop in the days and weeks following treatment. If you develop any negative effects from treatment, talk with your care team about ways to find relief. There are treatment options that can help ease pain, discomfort, and other uncomfortable symptoms.
Practicing self-care basics can also be helpful when it comes to radiation therapy side effects. Do your best to take good care of yourself by getting plenty of rest and quality sleep, eating a healthy diet, and drinking plenty of fluids. If you feel up to it, moving your body regularly can be helpful.
You’ll also want to talk with your radiation oncologist and other members of your treatment team about any long-term side effects you may experience. Depending on the area treated, you may experience difficulties with fertility following treatment. Radiation therapy is also associated with a slightly increased risk of developing a second cancer.
Talking with your providers before and during radiation therapy can help you know what to expect and take steps to protect your health.
When you undergo cancer treatment at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, including radiation therapy, our team of providers is here to walk you through every step of your journey. To learn more about radiation oncology, click here or call 770-525-4736.