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Preparing for Radiation Therapy to Fight Cancer

A cancer diagnosis is life-changing and brings fear, uncertainty and stress for the patient and loved ones.

But, with encouraging advancements in treatments, including radiation therapy, there’s also hope for more positive outcomes — improved cure and remission rates, and greater life expectancy and quality of life.

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, more than half of people with cancer receive some form of radiation therapy. Learn more about treatments here.

For some cancers, radiation therapy alone is an effective treatment. Other types of cancer respond best to combination treatments, which is using more than one treatment for a patient’s treatment plan.

For instance, this may include radiation therapy plus surgery, chemotherapy or immunotherapy.

A radiation oncologist is a healthcare provider who specializes in treating cancer with radiation. In preparation for your treatment, you will meet with your radiation oncologist and other professionals who will be involved in your care.

During this meeting, you’ll want to ask questions, so you know what treatment you will receive and what to expect during and after treatment.

Following are some examples of questions you might have on your list:

  • How many radiation treatments will I get?
  • Over what period of time?
  • What happens if I have to miss a treatment?
  • Is there a way to speed up my treatments?
  • Is there a faster treatment option?
  • When will radiation start?
  • When will it end?
  • How will I feel during radiation?
  • Will there be limits on what I can do, such as working or exercising?

For a complete list of potential questions, visit the Tanner Health Library.

Internal or external radiation?

Radiation therapy is given as external or internal radiation. The way you get it depends on the type of cancer, where it is in your body, your overall health and your personal preferences.

Sometimes both types of radiation therapy are used.

External radiation (external beam radiation therapy or EBRT)

Most radiation treatments are delivered through a large X-ray type of machine that sends the radiation beams through your skin and right at the tumor.

The beams are often aimed at the tumor from many different angles. A radiation therapist operates the machine.

It doesn’t touch you, and it won’t make you radioactive. Radiation can affect nearby normal cells, so special shields may be used to protect parts of your body near the treatment zone.

Most of the time, treatment is done five days a week for several weeks. These treatments don’t hurt. They often last only a few minutes.

They’re most often done on an outpatient basis in a hospital or clinic. This means you go home the same day.

Internal radiation (brachytherapy, implant radiation, or systemic radiation)

Less often, a source of radiation may be put right into your body.

For example, radioactive seeds or tubes might be put right into — or as close to — the cancer as possible. Sometimes a radioactive medicine is swallowed or put into your blood through a vein (injected intravenously or IV).

For instance:

  • Radioactive iodine can be swallowed to treat thyroid cancer.
  • Radioactive medicines can be injected into your blood to travel around your body and attach to and kill bone or liver cancer cells.
  • Radioactive seeds can be put right into the tumor to treat prostate cancer.
  • An applicator holding the radiation can be put next to a tumor through a body opening, like into the vagina, to treat cervical or uterine cancer.

Internal radiation can be used to give a higher dose of radiation over a shorter time. And the radiation only travels a short distance, so it kills the cancer cells with little damage to nearby tissues.

Some sources of radiation stay in the body for only a short time. Others, like seeds and radioactive medicines, stay in the body forever. But the radiation gets weaker and is used up over time.

Certain forms of internal radiation that stay in your body may give off radiation, requiring special precautions for a short time. Talk with your healthcare provider about possible safety steps you may need to take if you receive this form of radiation.

Your radiation oncologist will recommend the radiation therapy that will provide the best outcome for you and the treatment of your cancer.

For more information on Tanner Radiation Oncology or to make an appointment, call 770-812-9824 or visit TannerRadiationOncology.org.

Tanner Health System, Cancer Care, Tanner Medical Group

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