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Frequently Asked Questions

Radiation Therapy

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.