What is radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy is the use of radiation to treat cancer and other problems. There are different types of radiation. One that you may know about is x-rays. If you’ve ever had an x-ray of your chest or any other body part, you have had some radiation. This same type of radiation, but in much higher doses, is used to treat some types of cancer.
How does radiation therapy work?
Your body is made up of millions of normal healthy cells. Cancer starts when something changes a normal cell into a cancer cell. This cancer cell then grows and makes more cancer cells until a tumor is formed. This tumor can grow and cause problems. If the cancer is not treated, it can form more tumors and can spread to other parts of the body.
Radiation therapy is used to kill the cancer cells. Special equipment sends high doses of radiation to the cancer cells or tumor. This keeps the cells from growing and making more cancer cells. Radiation therapy can also affect normal cells near the tumor. But normal cells can repair themselves and cancer cells cannot.
Radiation therapy is not like chemotherapy (often called chemo). Radiation therapy treats just the tumor. Chemo uses drugs to treat the whole body. So chemo might be used if a person has cancer throughout their body. Radiation is a local treatment. This means it affects only the part of the body being treated.
How is radiation therapy given?
Radiation therapy can be given in 2 ways: from a machine outside of your body and from an object put inside you. Some patients get both types.
Radiation that comes from outside your body is called external beam radiation. (External means outside.) This uses a machine that sends high-energy rays from outside the body to the tumor and some of the area around the tumor.
Radiation therapy that puts a radioactive source inside you is called internal radiation therapy. (Internal means inside.) This type of treatment allows the doctor to give a large amount of radiation to the cancer cells. The radioactive source, which might look like a wire, pellet, or seed, comes in a small sealed container called an implant. The implant is put into or near the tumor, and the radiation travels only a very short distance. It can be left in place forever or just for a short time. If it is left in your body, the implant will stop giving off radiation after some time. Other implants are removed after the right amount of radiation has been given.
How long does a treatment take?
Treatments are given 5 days a week for 1 to 10 weeks. The number of treatments you need depends on the size and type of cancer, where the cancer is, how healthy you are, and any other medical treatments you are getting. Patients are often given a rest break on weekends so their normal cells can repair themselves.
What happens during each treatment visit?
External radiation therapy is like getting an x-ray. It is painless and only takes a few minutes. It takes time to get the machines set up, so a session can last 15 to 30 minutes. The radiation is aimed at your tumor from a machine. It is often given in a walk-in clinic, which means you don’t have to be in the hospital.
You will lie flat on a treatment table, under the radiation machine. The radiation therapist may put special shields or blocks in place between the machine and other parts of your body. These protect your organs and other body parts from the radiation. You will be asked to stay still during the treatment, but you can breathe.
Once you’re all set and the machine is ready, the therapist will go into a nearby room to run the machine and watch you. You will be able to talk to the therapist over an intercom. While the machine is working, youâ€™ll hear clicking and whirring noises. Sometimes you’ll hear something that sounds like a vacuum cleaner. That sound is the machine moving to aim the radiation from different angles. The radiation therapist controls this movement and checks to make sure the machine is working the way it should.
If you are worried about anything that happens while the machine is on, talk to your radiation therapist. If you start to feel sick or scared, let the therapist know right away. The machine can be stopped at any time.