Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How do I prepare for radiation treatments?
A: Most patients do not need to make any changes to their lifestyle before beginning radiation therapy.
Q: What side effects should I expect?
A: Side effects vary from patient to patient. The most common side effects include tiredness and a skin reaction that is specific to the area targeted for radiation therapy. Doses are very strictly controlled. A radiation oncologist meets with each patient weekly to discuss the side effects of the radiation therapy and to arrange treatment or medication to eliminate any side effects.
Q: Will my skin burn during radiation therapy?
A: At times, a patient may experience a sunburn-like reaction to the radiation.
Q: How long does a radiation therapy session last, and is it difficult to endure?
A: A radiation therapy treatment typically lasts about 15 minutes (and a course of treatment typically lasts from four to eight weeks). The patient must lie still, and the experience seems essentially the same as undergoing a chest X-ray.
Q: How is radiation therapy different from chemotherapy?
A: Radiation is a local or regional form of cancer therapy. It is applied to the specific area of the body that contains the tumor. By contrast, chemotherapy is given by injection or by mouth and travels throughout the entire body. Both radiation and chemotherapy inhibit cell growth and reproduction but usually do so at slightly different points within the cell reproductive cycles; both therapies can be combined for a greater effect.
Due to the fact that radiation therapy is a local treatment, radiation has advantages over chemotherapy. It is less likely to cause such general side effects such as nausea, extreme fatigue or decreased blood cell counts. However, radiation therapy cannot treat cancer that has spread beyond the local area.
Radiation and chemotherapy do not really compete against each other. Some diseases lend themselves well to therapy via radiation, others to chemotherapy, while still others require a combination of radiation and chemotherapy. Surgery is also an important method of treatment and can be used before or after radiation or chemotherapy.
When used properly, radiation is a very potent tool in the oncologist’s arsenal for arresting cancer growth. It is estimated that at least 50 percent of all cancer patients will need radiation at some point during the course of their illness.
Glossary of Terms
Radiation therapy involves using many terms you may have never heard before. Below is a list of words and phrases you may hear during your treatment.
Adjuvant treatment – A treatment that is given in addition to the primary treatment to enhance its effectiveness and reduce the chance of the tumor recurring.
Applicator – A device used to hold a radioactive source in place during brachytherapy.
Beam films – Another term for port films, beam films are pictures of the position of the radiation beams used to treat cancer. They are used to verify the position of the beams and confirm that treatment is delivered to the right place.
Blocks – Pieces of metal alloy that can be used to shape the radiation beam.
Boost – An additional dose of radiation that is given after an initial course of radiation to enhance tumor control. A boost may be given to the tumor and areas to which the tumor may have spread.
Brachytherapy – Internal radiation therapy that involves placing radioactive sources inside or adjacent to the tumor.
Cancer – A group of diseases in which abnormal cells divide uncontrollably, forming a tumor or mass.
Catheter – A tube inserted into the body that can be used to deliver radiation during brachytherapy.
Clinical trials – Studies that test new cancer therapies.
CT or CAT scan – A computer-assisted tomography scan is an X-ray procedure that uses a computer to produce detailed pictures of the body.
High-dose-rate remote afterloading machine – A medical device that allows radiation to be delivered into a patient’s body through catheters during brachytherapy.
Hyperfractionated radiation therapy – A type of radiation therapy in which the radiation doses are divided into smaller amounts (hyperfractionation) and patients undergo radiation treatment more than once a day.
Hypofractionated radiation therapy – A type of radiation therapy in which patients undergo one or just a few treatments.
Immobilization device – A device that is used to help a patient remain in the same position during every treatment.
Implants – Another term for brachytherapy, internal radiation therapy involves placing radioactive sources inside the patient close to or into the tumor.
Intensity-modulated radiation therapy, or IMRT – IMRT is a specialized form of external-beam therapy that allows radiation to be shaped to fit your tumor.
Interstitial brachytherapy – A form of seed implant in which the radioactive sources are placed directly into the tumor, such as the prostate.
Intracavity brachytherapy – A type of brachytherapy in which the radioactive seeds are put into a space where the tumor is located, such as the cervix or windpipe.
Linear accelerator – The most common type of machine used to deliver external radiation therapy. Sometimes called a “linac.”
Metastases – Cancer that has spread from one part of the body to another, such as from the breast to the lymph nodes or bones.
Monoclonal antibody – A type of antibody created in the laboratory.
MR or MRI scan – A magnetic resonance imaging scan is a procedure that uses a magnetic field to create detailed pictures of the body.
Multileaf collimator, or MLC – A part of a linear accelerator that is used to shape the radiation beam.
Neutron beam therapy – A specialized type of external-beam radiation therapy similar to proton therapy.
Palliative care/palliation – Treatment that is intended to relieve symptoms but not cure disease.
PET scan – A positron emission tomography scan uses a small dose of a chemical called a radionuclide combined with a sugar, which is injected into the patient. The radionuclide emits positrons. The PET scanner detects the positron emissions given off by the radionuclide.
Proton beam therapy – An external-beam therapy that uses protons rather than X-rays to treat tumors.
Radiation oncologist – A doctor who specializes in treating cancer and other diseases with radiation therapy.
Radiation oncology – The medical specialty that deals with treating cancer and other diseases with radiation therapy.
Radiation therapy – The careful use of various forms of radiation to treat cancer and other diseases.
Radioimmunotherapy – The use of radiolabeled antibodies to deliver radiation directly to a tumor.
Radiolabeled antibodies – Monoclonal antibodies (antibodies produced in a laboratory) that have had a radioactive isotope attached to them in a process called radiolabeling.
Radioprotector – A type of drug that protects normal tissues in the area being treated.
Radioresistant – A term used to describe a tumor that does not respond well to radiation therapy.
Radiosensitize – A type of drug that can make a tumor respond better to radiation therapy.
Simulation – The process of planning radiation therapy to allow the radiation to be delivered to the intended location.
Systemic radiation therapy – The use of radioactive isotopes that can travel throughout the body to treat certain cancers.
Treatment plan – A radiation oncologist’s prescription describing how a patient should be treated with radiation therapy. The radiation oncology team uses sophisticated treatment planning software to maximize radiation to the tumor while sparing healthy tissue.
Tumor – An abnormal lump or mass of tissue.