What is radiation therapy (RT)?

Radiation is a kind of energy created by waves or streams of particles delivered by specialized machines or given off by radioactive substances. The use of these high-energy rays or particles to treat disease, most often cancer, is called radiation therapy (or radiotherapy). Physicians specializing in this field are called radiation oncologists.

Radiation therapy treats cancer by targeting and destroying cancerous cells in the body. Although RT is similar to having an x-ray taken of a broken bone, the dose of radiation in cancer treatment is stronger and is given over a longer period of time. Many forms of radiation are available. The best choice depends on the type of cancer you have, the extent of the disease, and its location. There are several ways to deliver therapeutic radiation to treat cancer. Your radiation oncologist will explain how RT may benefit you.

How does radiation therapy work?

High doses of radiation can kill cells or keep them from growing and dividing. Because cancer cells grow and divide more rapidly than normal, healthy cells, radiation therapy is used to keep these cells from reproducing. Normal cells are also affected by radiation, but they recover more fully from radiation’s effects than cancer cells. Your radiation oncologist will plan your treatment to limit damage to normal cells while killing the cancer cells.

Is radiation therapy used to treat diseases and conditions other than cancer?

Yes, radiation therapy treats a variety of noncancerous conditions, including:

  • Acoustic neuromas/vestibular schwannomas
  • Graves opthalmopathy
  • Heterotopic bone formation
  • Keloids
  • Localized amyloidosis
  • Meningiomas
  • Pituitary adenomas
  • Trigeminal neuralgia
  • Many other benign tumors

Will radiation therapy make me radioactive?

No. After external beam radiotherapy treatment, you will not be radioactive. You can continue to enjoy the same contact with your family and friends as before your diagnosis without fear of exposing them to radiation. If you are treated with internal radioactive sources, you will stay in a protected room until the source of radiation is removed. If you need this type of radiation, your radiation oncologist will explain it to you in detail.

How does it feel to receive radiation treatments?

The treatments do not hurt. The beams cannot be seen or felt. However, over time, you may experience side effects from your treatment, discussed below.

What are the benefits and risks of radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is an effective way to treat many types of cancer throughout the body. Many people with cancer are successfully treated with radiation, and for many patients, it is the only kind of treatment needed. Cancer can be treated with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, alone or in combination with each other.

Like any other medical treatment, there are risks for patients receiving radiation therapy. High doses of radiation that damage or destroy cancer cells can also hurt normal cells, and when this occurs, there is a potential for side effects. The benefits of killing cancer cells usually outweigh the risk of side effects. Side effects vary from person to person and depend on the treatment dose and the area of the body being treated. Your radiation oncologist will discuss all possible side effects with you in full at the time of your consultation.

What are the possible side effects associated with radiation therapy?

The side effects of radiation treatment vary from person to person and depend on the treatment dose and the part of the body being treated. Typically, there are two types of side effects: acute and chronic. Acute side effects occur around the time of treatment and go away within a few weeks of finishing. Chronic side effects may take months or years to develop and can be permanent. The most common side effects are fatigue, skin changes, loss of appetite, and hair loss in the treated area, but, again, this is dependent on the area being treated. Be sure to tell your radiation oncologist or radiation therapist if you begin to experience any type of side effect.

Fatigue: During the course of your treatments, your body uses energy to help heal itself. This, combined with the stress related to your illness, daily trips for treatment, and the effects of radiation on normal cells, all contributes to fatigue. Most people who experience fatigue will not do so until a few weeks into their treatment, and it will go away after treatment is finished. If you feel tired, rest. Do not feel that you have to do all of the things you normally do. Consider taking time off from work, if necessary, or reducing your working hours. Have family and friends drive you to and from your daily treatments.

Skin Changes: Over time, your skin in the treatment area may begin to look irritated, reddened, sunburned, or tanned. It may become dry and itchy. Your radiation oncologist will closely monitor your skin and prescribe lotion for the area, if necessary. Be very gentle with the skin in the treatment area.

Wash using only lukewarm water and mild soap, and do not rub, scrub, or scratch any sensitive spots. Avoid heating pads or ice packs. Do not put anything on your skin unless approved by your radiation oncologist or nurse. Avoid exposing the area to the sun.

Appetite: While it is important to try not to lose weight during treatment, the side effects of radiation to certain areas of the body may make it difficult to eat and digest. Try eating small meals often, and avoid extremely hot or cold foods. If you have difficulty chewing or swallowing, your radiation oncologist may recommend a liquid diet supplement to use alone or in combination with small meals. You may lose interest in food during your treatment. Even if you're not hungry, it's important to try and keep your protein and calorie intake high.

Hair Loss: Radiation therapy can cause hair loss only in the area being treated. For most patients, hair grows back again after the treatments are finished. If you have hair loss to your head, consider covering the area with a hat, especially if it is exposed to the sun.

Who will administer my treatments?

Throughout your treatment you will be under the care of a team of specialists led by a radiation oncologist, a medical physician with highly specialized training in the use of radiation to treat disease.

Your radiation oncologist will determine the best method of treatment and the duration of your treatment. This includes the amount of radiation you will receive each day and the total number of treatment days. He or she will supervise all aspects of your treatment and manage any medical problems that may develop. Radiation physicists design the treatment plan under the supervision of your radiation oncologist. Your treatments are delivered by a professional, licensed radiation therapist. In addition, nurses work closely with your radiation oncologist to help you throughout your course of treatment. The healthcare team also includes other physicians, social workers, dietitians, and chaplains.

How often will I have radiation treatments?

Standard radiation treatments will be scheduled every weekday, Monday through Friday, allowing you to rest on Saturday and Sunday (and any holiday). Your daily appointment schedule is a set time and will be given to you after the radiation treatment planning is complete. We will try to accommodate your schedule. Your radiation therapist will notify you of any holidays on which you will not receive treatments. On average, the course of treatment for radiation therapy takes five to seven weeks. This time period enables your body to better tolerate the effects of the radiation. However, depending on special circumstances, the treatment course may be longer or shorter.

Scheduling for stereotactic radiosurgery or brachytherapy varies for each patient. Your radiation oncologist will customize your treatment plan and explain this to you.

Your radiation oncologist will examine you and review your progress once a week, following one of your daily therapy sessions. On this day, allow for an additional 15 to 20 minutes’ visit time. The nurses who see you during the check-up will work closely with you and the radiation oncologist to help you manage any side effects you may have. This is also the best time to request refills for any medications you may need to manage side effects.

What can I do to help myself during therapy?

Maintaining good nutrition is very important, though we recognize that this is a big challenge for many patients, especially those with certain types of cancer. Try to eat a well-balanced diet. Every day, choose foods from these groups: breads and cereals; meats, eggs, or beans; milk or milk products; and vegetables and fruits. Try to eat enough food to keep your weight at the same level as before treatment. Your body needs more calories now, so you may need to eat more than usual. A dietitian from the radiation therapy clinic can help you set up a food plan. Tell your physician or nurse if you experience any significant weight loss or weight gain. We will check your weight weekly. If you notice your weight going down, try to drink fluids that are high in calories, such as milk shakes or nutritional supplements.

How can I make a donation to the Department of Radiation Oncology?

Thank you for your interest in contributing to the Department of Radiation Oncology at Boston Medical Center. Philanthropic support is needed to further the Department of Radiation Oncology's mission to provide exceptional care without exception to all of our patients and to further our clinical research activities, which focus on investigating treatment methods to improve outcomes. If you wish to submit a donation to the department, please visit our secure website, select Other under designation, and write "Radiation Oncology" in the new field. Your personal commitment to support the department’s research initiatives with a tax-deductible gift will play an important role as the department moves forward with its critical work to bring forth breakthrough contributions benefiting patients battling cancer.

Boston Medical Center is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization. All donations are tax deductible to the full extent of the law. Click here to submit a donation.