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Answers to Common Questions about Radiation

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy rays to destroy abnormal cells, usually cancer cells. Radiation given externally (outside the body) may also be referred to as external beam treatment, X-ray therapy, irradiation, or electron beam therapy. A machine called a linear accelerator (LINAC) sends these high-energy rays to the area of your body needing treatment. Radiation may also be given internally using implants of small amounts of radioactive material (brachytherapy). These implants are placed inside the body or directly on the cancer.

How does radiation work?

Radiation works by damaging DNA in cells. Cancer cells can be destroyed by radiation because they are more sensitive to radiation and have a decreased ability to repair damage to themselves when compared to normal cells. Your radiation oncologist will design your treatment so that cancer cells are destroyed with minimal injury to surrounding normal tissues and organs.

How is radiation therapy used to treat cancer?

External beam radiation therapy is used to treat people with both malignant and benign tumors. Sometimes radiation therapy alone is enough to destroy the tumor. In other cases, it is combined with other kinds of treatment. Other types of treatment can include surgery and chemotherapy.

Will radiation treatments make me radioactive?

No. You will not be radioactive, give off radiation, or endanger others when you receive external beam treatment or HDR brachytherapy.

What are the treatment machines like?

Several different machines can deliver radiation treatments. At our cancer center, we use advanced linear accelerators (LINACS) for our external beam treatment. We also use CyberknifeTM and TrilogyTM for our stereotactic radiosurgery. These are large and can be intimidating at first. However, they are relatively quiet, and are not confining.

Are there any side effects from radiation therapy?

It is common to experience some side effects from your treatment. The type and severity depend on many factors including the area being treated, the amount of radiation applied and the individual patient. Your radiation team will give you specific information about this at the beginning of your treatment. You may tire easily because your body is using a lot of energy to fight the cancer, get rid of unhealthy cells, and rebuild healthy cells that have been injured. Although we encourage you to remain active, if you start feeling very tired, you may need to increase the time you rest. It’s very important to eat properly throughout your treatment to maintain your weight and strength. Don’t use this time to try to lose weight.

Can I work and continue my normal activities while I’m having radiation therapy?

We encourage most people to continue to work and perform their normal activities, as long as they feel well enough. If you find that you are tired, rest until you feel stronger.

Can I continue to drive while receiving radiation?

Most people are able to drive themselves to and from their appointments. Since there is no medical reason related to your radiation therapy to prevent you from driving, you can choose whether to have someone drive you to your appointments or to drive yourself. However, you should not drive if you don’t feel well, are taking medication that causes drowsiness or if your physician advises you not to do so because of your medical condition.

How long do radiation treatments take?

Most treatments take about 15 minutes a day. Treatments are given every day Monday through Friday. The total length of a course varies depending on your specific situation. Ask your physician how long your specific treatment course will last.