Patient's Guide to Radiation - Touro Infirmary

Patient's Guide to Radiation Therapy

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is a common cancer treatment. There are several different types of radiation therapy, at least one of which is used to treat more than half of all cancer patients. It can be used on its own or with other treatments like surgery or chemotherapy.

Radiation therapy involves beaming cancer cells with waves like gamma rays or X-rays, which damage the genetic material in the cancerous cells. Radiation therapy can also destroy healthy cells but is far more harmful to cancerous cells.

If your doctor recommends radiation therapy, you may receive it at one of three stages:

  • Before surgery, in order to shrink a tumor
  • During surgery, in order to direct radiation at a tumor
  • After surgery, in order to prevent remaining cancer cells from growing

How radiation therapy is administered:

There are two ways to administer radiation therapy: Externally or internally. External radiation is used to treat large areas in multiple locations of your body, which is particularly useful if your cancer has spread. Patients undergoing external radiation generally receive the treatment five days per week for anywhere from one to eight weeks. Each session lasts anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes.

Internal radiation – also known as brachytherapy – is used to deliver a large amount of radiation to a small area. It can be administered through an IV, by mouth, or through an injection. The radiation is generally placed in or near a tumor.

Side effects of radiation therapy:

The side effects experienced during internal or external radiation depend on the body part undergoing treatment and the dosage given. Some patients do not experience any side effects, while others experience many.

Some of the most common side effects of radiation therapy are:

  • Hair loss
  • Skin irritation
  • Fatigue
  • Dry mouth
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Earaches
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Bladder irritation
  • Frequent urination
  • Sexual dysfunction

Patient's should always talk to their physician about what to expect when undergoing radiation treatment.