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June 16, 2023

What is radiation therapy?

In Cancer Treatment

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What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is high-energy X-ray that has been used to kill cancer cells for more than 100 years. There are different types of radiation such as proton therapy and photon therapy (conventional radiation).

There are two main modes for delivering radiation therapy:

  • External beam. This is when a machine outside your body aims rays or particles into your cancer.
  • Internal. This is when your doctor places a source of radiation—such as seeds, ribbons, or capsules—inside your body. 

Which types of cancers are treated with radiation therapy?

More than half of cancer patients will receive radiation therapy. This includes people with brain cancer, head and neck cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer, rectal cancer, among many others.

What are some common side effects of radiation therapy?

Your radiation oncologist will ensure treatment is delivered as safely and precisely as possible. Still, you may still have side effects, such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Skin changes—including redness, blisters, or peeling—in the part of your body being treated
  • Hair loss
  • Other issues in the treatment area—for instance, nausea and vomiting if you receive radiation to your stomach
Ask your healthcare provider for help managing side effects. For instance, diet changes may increase energy and ease digestive problems. Lotions approved by your healthcare team can soothe your skin. 

How long does radiation therapy last?

Often, you’ll receive external beam radiation treatment five days a week, for two to 10 weeks. For internal treatments, the radiation source stays in place anywhere from a few minutes to the rest of your life.

How can you prepare for radiation therapy?

If you’ll be beginning radiation therapy soon:

  • Meet with your healthcare provider. Most people will have a one- to two-hour discussion to plan treatment. Ask about the benefits and risks, and how to take care of yourself during treatment and afterward.
  • Talk with your employer. Many people are too ill to work through radiation therapy. Explore your options, including medical leave, limited hours, or working from home.
  • Plan for precautions. If you’re receiving internal radiation, you may need to take safety measures to protect others from exposure, especially children and pregnant people. Ask your healthcare provider for details.

How can you support a loved one through this treatment?

Radiation therapy can be stressful and tiring. When someone is in treatment, ask how they’d like you to help. You can offer to:

  • Cook meals
  • Take on chores
  • Drive them to and from treatment
  • Run errands 



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