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What to Expect

Spinal Cancer

Fighting cancer is challenging. To help you prepare for the fight, here is a brief outline of what you can expect during treatment with radiotherapy or radiosurgery. The details of some of the steps may differ, depending on your particular case.

Step 1: The Consultation

First, you'll meet with your doctor, a radiation oncologist, to discuss your treatment. Based on your specific case, your radiation oncologist will tell you what type of treatment technique he or she recommends, whether it will be given alone or in conjunction with other treatment methods, what the specific goals of treatment are, and what side effects you may experience. You can talk to your doctors about your treatment options and make a decision together.

The consultation is an excellent opportunity for you to ask the doctor whatever questions you may have. Click here for a list of common questions.

Step 2: Imaging

The second step of the planning process is called imaging. Detailed imaging scans are made of the treatment area to show the location of your tumor and the normal areas around it. These scans usually include a CT scan, but they can also include an MRI, PET scan, and ultrasound scans. The scans are analyzed and combined by a sophisticated software program to create a detailed 3-D image of your tumor site and surrounding tissue. Your doctor can rotate the image on his computer screen in order to view the tumor from every angle.

It is very important that the position in which you care scanned is reproduced at the time of treatment. Sometimes temporary skin marks and even tiny tattoos (about the size of a freckle) are made on your body to help the radiation therapist (RT) position you correctly each day for treatment. Your RT will also help you find the most comfortable position on the treatment couch. For most spinal treatments (thoracic, lumbar, lumbo-sacral), a body cradle will be placed underneath you and adjusted for each treatment session to help you stay still while you’re lying on the couch. For cervical spine treatments, you may have a special head and neck mask to stabilize your upper spine.

Step 3: Treatment Planning

After imaging is complete, the radiation oncologist will meet with the radiation physicist and dosimetrist to design the details of your treatment plan. After taking into account the location, type, and stage of your cancer, your medical history, lab tests, and other factors, your treatment team will use sophisticated computer software to assist them in prescribing the exact volume to be treated, the total amount of radiation that will be delivered to the tumor, the angles for the radiation beams, and how many treatments you should have.

Step 4: Getting Positioned for Treatment

Before each day's treatment, you may be asked to change into a gown. The radiation therapist (RT) will help position you on the treatment couch, using a facemask, mold or other device to help you remain still. The couch will be adjusted so a laser light shines on the mark that was put on your skin, helping to position you correctly.

Depending on the type of machine you’re treated on, your treatment team may take a scan immediately prior to treatment, while you are on the couch. The purpose of this new scan is to show if the tumor has changed in size or position since the first one was created during imaging. If it reveals any changes, the RT will make the necessary adjustments to the position of the couch to ensure that you are properly aligned for treatment.

Step 5: Treatment Begins

The radiation is delivered by a machine called a linear accelerator, or linac. Most linacs have a gantry, which is the head of the machine. The gantry houses a device called a multi-leaf collimator that "shapes" the radiation beam so it conforms to the shape of the tumor from any given angle. During your treatment, the gantry will move around you to deliver the radiation. The radiation beam is not visible to the eye, so you will not see it when it leaves the gantry.

Your first two treatments may take 15 minutes or more, as your radiation therapist helps you get into position and takes images to verify that your setup on the machine is the same as the treatment plan. Subsequent treatments, however, are often shorter. In fact, some treatments — from entering the waiting room to leaving the clinic — can take as little as 12 to 30 minutes.

Step 6: Post-Treatment and Follow-Ups

You may experience some side effects from radiotherapy or radiosurgery. If you do, they might not begin until after several sessions because the effects of radiation treatment are cumulative. Talk to your oncologist before and during treatment if you have any questions or experience discomfort. Click here to learn more about possible side effects.

After your treatment has ended, your oncologist will recommend a schedule for periodic checkups to monitor the results. Typically, the first checkup is given in one to three months, and subsequent checkups are scheduled at six-month intervals, but yours may be more or less frequent, depending upon your situation. If symptoms or clinical circumstances suggest a recurrence, diagnostic tests such as blood tests, ultrasound, CT scans, MRIs, chest x-ray (CXR), or a bone scan may be needed.