VarianVarian

Frequently Asked Questions

For what types of cancer is radiation therapy used?

Radiation therapy is used to treat cancerous tumors, including cancers of the brain, breast, cervix, larynx, lung, pancreas, prostate, skin, spine, stomach, throat/neck, uterus, and soft-tissue sarcomas. It can also be used to treat leukemia (cancer of the blood-forming cells) and lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system).

Is radiation therapy used only to destroy tumors?

No. It can also be used to prevent cancer cells from forming in the first place – a technique called prophylactic radiation therapy. In situations where it is not possible to completely eliminate the cancer, radiation therapy can be used to shrink the tumor, with the goal of reducing pain, pressure and other symptoms in order to improve the patient's quality of life. When radiation is used in this way, it is called palliative radiation therapy.

How long does radiation therapy take?

Although the number of treatments given varies depending on the type of cancer you have, your general health, and the radiation technique used, radiation treatments are typically given five days a week for six to seven weeks. When radiation is used for palliative care, the course of treatment is shorter, usually two to three weeks. Each treatment session typically takes 30-60 minutes.

Are radiation therapy treatments painful?

You will not experience any pain or discomfort during your treatment sessions, although a small number of people feel a slight warming or tingling sensation in the area being targeted. You will not be able to see, smell, taste, or hear the radiation.

What are the side effects of radiation therapy?

Side effects, if there are any, are cumulative, which means they develop over the course of treatment as the radiation builds up in the tumor. They can be minor or severe, depending on the size and location of the tumor, your general medical condition, and the treatment applied. Two of the most common side effects are irritation or damage to the skin near the treatment site, and fatigue. To learn about side effects that are specific to the treatment of your type of cancer, please the side effects section of our site.

Will radiation therapy make me radioactive?

External-beam radiation therapy – where the source of the radiation is a machine outside your body – will not make you radioactive. After the radiation is delivered, there is no lingering radiation. If you receive internal radiation therapy (also called brachytherapy) – where tiny radioactive implants are placed inside your body – most of the radiation is absorbed by the surrounding tissues, but low levels radiation can be emitted from your body for a limited period of time. During this period, you will need to take certain precautions to reduce the exposure to other people – in particular children and women of child-bearing age.

Will radiation therapy make my hair fall out?

Radiation therapy only affects the area of the body where the tumor is located. You will not lose your hair unless your treatment targets a part of the body that grows hair, such as your scalp. If you do lose your hair, it would most likely grow back after your treatment is over.

Will radiation therapy make me nauseous?

Radiation therapy affects only those areas being treated, so if you are not receiving radiation to your abdomen, it is unlikely that you will experience nausea as a result of treatment. In some cases, a patient's nausea is caused by other aspects of his or her treatment, such as chemotherapy or pain medication.

Can the radiation therapy itself cause cancer?

Theoretically, yes, but it is highly unlikely. In addition to the cancer cells being targeted, some normal cells surrounding the area being treated can be damaged by the radiation, which could eventually cause another cancer known as a second primary cancer. The possibility of this happening, however, is quite small, because modern radiotherapy techniques enable the doctor to target the tumor precisely while minimizing dose to nearby healthy tissue. The statistics on radiation-induced cancers indicate that the probability of causing a new cancer is less than 5% at 30 years after treatment. This future risk is far less than the immediate risk of dying from the original cancer if it is left untreated.

Will I be able to drive after my radiation treatments?

Almost all patients are able to drive during their course of treatment and, in fact, are able to continue all their normal daily activities, including work. You should, however, ask your doctor about your individual situation.

Can radiation therapy be given at the same time as other treatments?

Radiation is sometimes the only type of treatment a patient needs, but some types of cancer respond best to a combination of approaches, which could involve radiation plus surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and/or immunotherapy. When radiation therapy is used to increase the effectiveness of another type of treatment, it is called adjuvant therapy.

For what types of cancer is radiosurgery used?

Radiosurgery was first innovated to treat brain and spinal tumors. Now, radiosurgery can be used to treat cancers almost anywhere in the body, including lungs, prostate, and liver. Radiosurgery is typically most suitable for early stage cancers, and small metastases.

Is radiation therapy used only to ablate tumors?

No. In addition to treating cancer, radiosurgery has also been shown to be beneficial for the treatment of some non-cancerous conditions. Radiosurgery can also be used to relieve symptoms like pain or pressure by shrinking the cancer when curing the cancer is not possible.

How does radiosurgery work?

Radiosurgery kills cancer cells by damaging their DNA—the molecules containing genetic information—which destroys their ability to divide and reproduce. Radiation can also kill normal cells, but cancer cells grow and divide more quickly than normal ones and are more susceptible to the damage from radiation. In addition, normal cells are better able than cancer cells to repair themselves and recover from the effects of radiation. When cancerous cells die, the tumor shrinks or stops growing.

How long does radiosurgery take?

Radiosurgery is delivered in one to five treatment sessions. A radiosurgery treatment can take from as little as two minutes to an hour, sometimes longer depending on your particular case. Ultimately, your clinical team will determine the length of each session.

Are radiosurgery treatments painful?

Some people report experiencing minor pain or discomfort during their treatment sessions, and a small number of people report a slight warming or tingling sensation in the area being targeted. You will not be able to see, smell, taste, or hear the radiation itself during treatment.

What are the side effects of radiosurgery?

As with all cancer treatments, radiosurgery has some potential side effects. Some of the most common side effects associated with radiosurgery are irritation or damage to the skin near the treatment site, fatigue, and nausea. Other side effects are usually specific to the type of cancer being treated, such as hair loss when the brain is treated, or potential urinary problems when the lower abdomen is treated. Your clinical team will inform you of any potential side effects you may experience.

Will radiosurgery make my hair fall out?

Radiosurgery typically affects the area of the body where the tumor is located. You may lose your hair if your treatment targets a part of the body that grows hair, such as your scalp.

Will radiosurgery make me nauseous?

Radiation therapy affects only those areas being treated, so if you are not receiving radiation to your abdomen, it is unlikely that you will experience nausea as a result of treatment. Some patients treated for brain tumors experience slight nausea as well. In some cases, a patient's nausea is caused by other aspects of his or her treatment, such as chemotherapy or pain medication.

Will I be able to drive after my radiosurgery treatments?

Almost all patients are able to drive during their course of treatment and, in fact, are able to continue all their normal daily activities, including work. You should, however, ask your doctor about your individual situation.

Can radiosurgery be given at the same time as other treatments?

Radiosurgery can be used as the first and only line of treatment for certain tumors. Some types of cancer, however, respond best to a combination of approaches, which could involve radiation plus surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and/or immunotherapy. When radiation therapy is used to increase the effectiveness of another type of treatment, it is called adjuvant therapy.

How does brachytherapy work?

Brachytherapy works by inserting a source of radiation directly next to or inside a cancerous tumor. The way brachytherapy is administered depends on a number of factors, including the location and size of the tumor, and whether the cancer has spread to other sites in the body. With HDR brachytherapy, the source of radiation is left in place for a short period of time (minutes), and then removed. With LDR brachytherapy, the sources are left in place for much longer (several days), or permanently. Permanent brachytherapy is often used to treat prostate cancer by placing tiny radioactive seeds in the area to be treated. The radiation dosage gradually diminishes over time. Click here to read more.

What are the side effects of brachytherapy?

The side effects of brachytherapy are typically localized in the area being treated. Side effects depend on a number of factors, such as the type of cancer being treated, the stage of the cancer, or if the patient has any other ongoing health problems. Most of the acute side effects associated with brachytherapy can be treated with medication and usually disappear over time, typically a matter of weeks after treatment is completed. Long-term side effects may occur in a small number of patients and are generally an effect of the radiation on adjacent tissues or organs. For more information, click here.

Will my radiotherapy affect other people?

If temporary brachytherapy is used, no radioactive sources remain in the body after treatment. Therefore, there is no radiation risk to friends or family. When undergoing permanent brachytherapy (LDR) treatment for prostate, a common concern is that the patient will give off a degree of radiation as low-activity radioactive sources (seeds) are left in the body after treatment. However, the radiation levels are very low and decrease over time. After the seeds are implanted the patient does not become radioactive – only the seeds are radioactive. The patient is not a hazard to other people, although it is sometimes recommended as a precaution that they avoid holding young children or being close to pregnant women during the first two months after the implant procedure.

How is radiation used for the treatment of brain tumors?

Radiation damages cancer cells and inhibits their ability to reproduce. For some patients, whole-brain radiation may be used to treat multiple tumors at once. This treatment may be followed by radiosurgery to target specific tumors, if appropriate. Radiation therapy or radiosurgery may also be used following conventional surgery to remove a tumor in order to destroy any remaining cancer cells outside the primary tumor site. In some cases, radiosurgery or radiotherapy may be used alone as the first line of treatment. You and your treatment team will discuss your options and what type of radiation might be appropriate for your particular case.

What are the side effects of radiation treatment for brain tumors?

Some patients experience minor side effects from brain radiation, such as fatigue or skin irritation of the scalp. These side effects typically subside after treatment ends. Other serious side effects that may occur include radiation necrosis (build-up of scar tissue), hair loss, muffled hearing and other neurological issues, usually depending on which area of the brain is treated. These side effects may be temporary, or in some rare cases, permanent. Whole-brain radiation may also cause some short-term memory loss and difficulty thinking. See Possible Side Effects for more information. You should also talk to your radiation oncologist about what side effects you might experience during and after treatment.

How is radiation therapy used to fight breast cancer?

Radiation damages the DNA in cancer cells and inhibits their ability to reproduce. Normal cells, however, can usually recover from radiation damage more easily. Radiation therapy for breast cancer is most commonly used after a lumpectomy or mastectomy. The site where the tumor was removed often receives post-surgery radiation. Following surgery, radiation therapy may help prevent your cancer from recurring by treating any malignant cancer cells that may have been left behind or shed during surgery.

How does 'respiratory gating' work?

Will I need it? Respiratory gating is most commonly used for patients with breast cancer on the left side. During respiratory gating, your radiation therapist studies the motion of your chest as you breathe. The therapist may direct you to hold your breath while a small cube on your chest broadcasts the position of your ribcage to the control room. Holding your breath while the lungs are full creates the largest possible space between your heart and breastplate, allowing the radiation to penetrate your treatment site while sparing heart and lung tissue.

What are the side effects of radiation therapy for breast cancer?

Side effects are usually temporary and often subside after treatment ends, however, some could be serious. Possible side effects include skin irritation, fatigue, mild breast swelling, breast tenderness, and lymphedema. See Possible Side Effects for more information. You should also talk to your radiation oncologist about what side effects you might experience during and after treatment.

How is radiation therapy used to fight head and neck cancers?

Radiation damages the DNA in cancer cells and inhibits their ability to reproduce. When the damaged cancer cells attempt to divide and multiply, they die, which helps to stop the tumor growth. In some cases, the tumor may shrink. Normal cells, however, can usually recover from radiation damage more easily. You and your treatment team will discuss your options and what type of radiation might be appropriate for your particular case.

What are the side effects of radiation treatment for head and neck cancers?

Some possible side effects include redness of the skin near the treatment area, sore throat and mouth, dry mouth and/or thickened saliva, changes in taste and/or speech, pain when swallowing, earaches, temporary hair loss on your head, neck and face, and fatigue. Side effects are usually limited to the area receiving treatment and can be minor or severe, depending on a number of factors. Many side effects effects are temporary and usually should subside shortly after treatment ends. See Possible Side Effects for more information. You should also talk to your radiation oncologist about what side effects you might experience during and after treatment.

How is radiation therapy used to fight lung cancer?

Radiation damages the DNA in cancer cells and inhibits their ability to reproduce. When the damaged cancer cells attempt to divide and multiply, they die, which stops the tumor growth. In some cases, the tumor may shrink. Normal cells, however, can usually recover from radiation damage more easily. You and your treatment team will discuss your options and what type of radiation might be appropriate for your particular case.

What are the side effects of radiation treatment for lung cancer?

The most common side effects include fatigue and skin irritation, including redness, dryness, tanning, and itchiness. Skin breakdown, burn and ulcer formation are serious but rare during lung cancer treatment. You may lose hair on your chest, but not the hair on your head. (However, it is worth mentioning that certain types of chemotherapy that may be given together with radiation may cause hair loss on your head as well.) You may experience shortness of breath, a dry cough, difficulty or pain swallowing, or narrowing of the esophagus. See Possible Side Effects for more information. You should also talk to your radiation oncologist about what side effects you might experience during and after treatment.

How is radiation therapy used to fight prostate cancer?

Radiation damages the DNA in cancer cells and inhibits their ability to reproduce. When the damaged cancer cells attempt to divide and multiply, they die, which stops the tumor growth. In some cases, the tumor may shrink. Normal cells, however, can usually recover from radiation damage more easily. You and your treatment team will discuss your options and what type of radiation might be appropriate for your particular case.

What are the side effects of radiation treatment for prostate cancer?

Some possible side effects include fatigue, urinary frequency or discomfort during urination, bowel irritation, impotence, sterility, rectal/urethral bleeding, and skin irritation. Many of the side effects of radiation therapy for prostate cancer will gradually go away after your treatment ends. See Possible Side Effects for more information. You should also talk to your radiation oncologist about what side effects you might experience during and after treatment.

How is radiation used for the treatment of spinal cancer?

Radiation damages cancer cells and inhibits their ability to reproduce. Radiation therapy or radiosurgery may be used following conventional surgery to remove a tumor in order to destroy any remaining cancer cells outside the primary tumor site. In some cases, when surgery isn't possible, radiation may be used as the first method to shrink the tumor. You and your treatment team will discuss your options and what type of radiation might be appropriate for your particular case.

What are the side effects of radiation treatment for spinal cancer?

Some patients experience minor side effects from spinal radiation, such as fatigue or skin irritation. These side effects typically subside after treatment ends. Other side effects that may occur include radiation necrosis (build-up of scar tissue), loss of sensation, damage to nerves, or paralysis. These side effects may be temporary, but in some rare cases are permanent. For tumors that have already significantly invaded the vertebrae, bone fracture and vertebral body collapse may occur. Vertroplasty or Kyphoplasty are a minimally invasive, non-surgical procedure that is designed to relieve the pain of compression fractures in the spine. For more details, see Possible Side Effects. You should also talk to your radiation oncologist about what side effects you might experience during and after treatment.

How long will I have to be in radiation treatment?

Typically, if radiation therapy is used, treatment is delivered five days a week for four to six weeks. Radiation therapy sessions typically take 20 to 30 minutes including set-up time at the beginning of treatment, but over time it may only take 5-10 minutes in and out of the treatment room. If your radiation oncologist recommends radiosurgery as your treatment, you will have one to five treatment sessions, averaging about 20 minutes or more per session. Your clinical team will determine the type of treatment appropriate for you and the number of sessions you'll need. To learn more about how radiation therapy and radiosurgery differ, see our Radiation Treatments overview page

Can I drive myself to and from treatment?

Depending on what kind of radiation technique is used to treat your cancer, your doctor may recommend that you bring someone along to your treatment sessions. However, many patients are able to drive themselves to and from treatmen

Will I be alone in the treatment room?

In most treatment facilities, if you are treated with external beam radiotherapy or radiosurgery, your team will position you for treatment, and then leave the room to control and monitor your treatment from a separate treatment console. They will be able to see and hear you at all times using video and audio equipment in the room.

What position will I be in for treatment? Will I be able to see what's happening?

Patients treated for brain tumors are typically positioned lying with their back on the treatment "couch." An immobilizing face mask may be placed over your face and fastened to the couch to help you remain still during treatment. Depending on what equipment is used for your treatment, other props or methods may be used to help you maintain your treatment position. While the beam is on, you will be able to watch the machine rotate around you, but the radiation beam itself is invisible.

Is radiation treatment painful or uncomfortable?

Similar to an x-ray, radiation beams are not visible and you cannot feel them. Some patients treated for brain tumors have difficulty adjusting to the immobilizing face mask, while others find that it becomes easier as the treatment progresses. Your treatment team will help make you comfortable for each session, and you can always speak to them (via microphones in the treatment room) if you are uncomfortable. Some patients do experience painful skin irritation as a result of the radiation post-treatment. If you do, your team can suggest ointments to take care of your skin

What happens after treatment ends?

Most doctors and cancer centers will discuss nutrition, exercise programs, stress reduction, and support groups with you to help during and after treatment. After your treatment ends, your doctor will recommend a schedule for periodic checkups to monitor the results. Typically, checkups are scheduled at six-month intervals. If symptoms or clinical circumstances suggest a recurrence of the cancer, diagnostic tests such as blood tests, ultrasound, CT scans, MRIs, chest x-ray (CXR), or a bone scan may be needed.

How will I know treatment worked?

Imaging scans will be repeated, usually a few weeks after treatment, to assess the response of your tumor. The general rule of thumb is that a cancer is considered to be in remission if you have no signs of the disease for three years after treatment is completed.