What is Radiation Therapy?

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Radiation oncology, or radiation therapy, involves using targeted, penetrating rays of energy (radiation) to destroy cancer cells. A radiation oncologist is a specialist trained to use radiation therapy to treat cancer.

How does Radiation Therapy work?

Radiation therapy works by  damaging the DNA in the cancer cell.  This disables the cancer cells and keeps them from reproducing and growing. The cancer cells then die and the cancer shrinks. The objective of radiation therapy is to kill enough cancer cells to maximize the probability of cure and minimize side effects.

How is Radiation Therapy used in Cancer Treatment?

Because radiation can be focused on any part of the body, more than half of all patients who have cancerous tumors are treated with some form of radiation therapy. It is often used alone or as part of a plan that includes other methods for treating cancer, such as surgery or chemotherapy. Under some circumstances, radiation therapy may also be used as palliative care.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Will radiation hurt?
A: You won't feel anything at all during your treatments.

Q: Will I be radioactive?
A: If you are receiving external radiation treatments, you will NOT become radioactive. If you have a temporary or permanent implant, there are minor precautions.

Q: Will I lose my hair?
A: Not necessarily. Radiation therapy is targeted at a specific part of the body. If you are receiving treatments to your head, you will probably lose the hair on your head, but therapy to a different part of the body will not cause hair loss. (If you are also undergoing chemotherapy, you may lose your head and body hair from certain chemotherapy drugs.)

Q: Will I be sick to my stomach?
A: You will not feel sick during the treatment itself. If you are receiving treatments to the abdominal area, however, you may experience some nausea an hour or two after treatment.

Q: Can I drive after a treatment?
A: If you are able to drive to a treatment, you will be able to drive home. Many people, however, especially those undergoing both radiation therapy and chemotherapy, experience a great deal of fatigue. It may be helpful, in this case, to have someone else drive you.

Q: How long does each treatment take?
A: On average treatment takes only 15-30 minutes.

Q: How many treatments will I need?
A: The total number of treatments is determined by your radiation oncologist to maximize the effects on the cancer and minimize the effects on normal tissue.

Learn more about Radiation Therapy

Click on the graphic below to launch an interactive tutorial about radiation therapy.