Radiation therapy is used for cancer and can help shrink tumours, control pain or relieve symptoms. It is usually given as a series of daily treatments over several weeks.
Radiation can cause side effects, but they vary from person to person. Some side effects appear during treatment, while others may take months or even years to show up.
What is radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high doses of radiation to shrink tumors or destroy cancer cells. The radiation can be delivered externally or internally, and it may be used alone or in combination with surgery or chemotherapy.
Radiation moves through space and can be given off naturally by the sun or from some types of rocks and minerals. It is also produced artificially for things like x-rays to take pictures of the inside of your body. In lower doses, radiation helps your doctor see cancer cells and other abnormalities during a biopsy or for surgery. In higher doses, radiation damages DNA in cancer cells so they can’t grow or reproduce.
During radiation treatment, you’ll lie on the table while the machine makes a buzzing sound and turns around to deliver different angles of radiation. The whole session can last 10 to 30 minutes. Your team will stay in a room nearby to monitor you and make sure the radiation is hitting your target area exactly as planned. Most people do not feel pain during radiation treatments.
How does radiation therapy work?
Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high doses of radiation to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. The radiation damages the DNA in cancer cells, which prevents them from growing or dividing. The damaged cells eventually die or are broken down and removed by the body. It can also damage healthy cells, but most of these recover.
The type of radiation used depends on the type and location of your cancer. It may be given alone or with other cancer treatments, such as surgery and chemotherapy. It may be given before surgery to shrink a tumor and make it easier to remove or after surgery to destroy any cancer cells that remain.
With external beam radiation therapy (EBRT), you lie on a treatment table, positioned as during simulation. A large machine moves around you, aiming at the cancer from many different directions. A healthcare provider called a radiation therapist operates the machine from a room nearby and you can communicate with them through an intercom. You should not feel anything during treatment. You may experience general side effects from the radiation, such as fatigue and mouth sores. But other side effects may show up months or years after your treatment ends, depending on the part of your body that received radiation and other factors such as smoking.
What are the side effects of radiation therapy?
It’s important to remember that every person reacts differently to radiation therapy. The type and location of your cancer, your general health and pre-existing conditions will impact the number and severity of side effects you may experience.
Radiation works to destroy cancer cells, but it can also damage healthy cells and tissues at or near the treatment area. This can cause short-term and long-term side effects.
Early side effects happen during and shortly after treatment and are usually related to the area being treated. They are often easy to manage, such as fatigue (feeling tired) and skin changes.
For example, if you’re receiving radiation to the head and neck, your skin will likely look and feel sunburned. You can help manage this by using gentle soaps, moisturizing creams and avoiding harsh products that could irritate the skin. You may want to consider using a towel that pats, rather than rubs, the irritated area.
Radiation to the pelvic area can irritate the bladder or urethra, causing you to pass urine more often and have some stinging when passing urine (cystitis). This is typically temporary, but can be ongoing if it isn’t managed correctly.
Will I be able to work during my treatment?
Many people choose to continue working through their treatment. Some may need to change their job or reduce the number of hours they work, but most can keep their current job with some adjustments. Your doctor and your employer can discuss how you might do this. Some patients don’t tell their employers about their cancer diagnosis or treatment, but this decision is a personal one. You should consider the impact on your income, insurance coverage and the side effects of your treatment.
Your radiation oncologist will make a plan for you to have your treatments in a way that won’t affect your work. If you are thinking about telling your employer, practice what you want to say ahead of time with family members and friends. Provide only the information your employer needs to know.
Radiation therapy can cause side effects, including fatigue. Fatigue is the feeling of being tired all the time and can happen slowly or quickly. It can be hard to get used to and some people feel more fatigue than others.
Will I be able to work after my treatment?
Many people choose to continue working during their treatment. This may be to keep their income and health insurance coverage or because they enjoy the social aspects of work. Others take a leave of absence and decide to find other types of work or not return at all. Still others take a reduced schedule or work from home during their treatment.
Some cancer treatments can make you feel tired and weak. If this is the case, your doctor can discuss ways to manage fatigue and suggest activities that might help. Fatigue from radiation therapy is different than the tiredness you may have experienced before your diagnosis. It is disabling and can seem out of proportion to your activity level.
Each radiation treatment session takes about 15 to 45 minutes. The simulation and the actual treatment sessions last only a few minutes. During your treatment, the radiation therapist will move the machine around you to deliver the radiation beam to the area of your tumor. They may leave the room to monitor you on a television screen in another room. The machine might make noises during treatment that sound like clicking, knocking or whirring.