Frequently Asked Questions

What are the side effects of radiation therapy?

Side effects vary depending on the dose of radiation and the part of the body being treated. Most side effects go away within two months after completing radiation therapy. However, everyone is different, so it is important to have follow-up care with a radiation oncologist or nurse practitioner.

Many patients notice skin changes and fatigue. Skin changes may include dryness, itching, peeling, or blistering. These changes occur because radiation therapy affects healthy skin cells in the treatment area. You will need to take special care of your skin during radiation therapy. Please see “Managing Side Effects” for more information.

Depending on the part of your body being treated, side effects during radiation may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Hair loss in the treated area
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sexual changes
  • Swelling
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Urinary and bladder changes

You will see the nurse and doctor once a week to monitor the possible side effects.

Delayed side effects are rare, but they do happen and may occur six or more months after the completion of your radiation therapy. Be sure to have follow-up care and talk to your doctor or nurse about whether you might have delayed side effects and what signs to look for.

Delayed side effects may include:

  • Infertility
  • Joint problems
  • Lymphedema
  • Mouth problems
  • Secondary cancer

How is radiation therapy given?

Radiation therapy is given in two forms: external beam therapy and internal brachytherapy. The form of radiation used in your treatment will be determined by a radiation oncologist and will be the best choice for your specific type of cancer, the extent of your disease and its location. Some patients receive both forms, one after the other. However, most people receive external beam radiation therapy.

  • External beam therapy is usually an outpatient procedure. A machine called a linear accelerator (Linac) delivers high-energy x-ray beams to the cancer target.
  • During internal brachytherapy, a radioactive substance is sealed in small containers such as thin wires or tubes. The implant is placed directly into a tumor or, after a tumor has been removed by surgery, implants are put into the area around the incision to destroy any tumor cells that may remain.

Who gives radiation treatments?

Radiation therapy involves a team of highly trained, experienced and certified specialists, led by a radiation oncologist, a doctor who specializes in, and is board certified in, radiation oncology. The radiation oncologist works closely with other doctors involved in your care and also leads a highly trained health care team.

Your radiation therapy team may include:

  • A radiation physicist, who makes sure the equipment is working properly and that the machines deliver the right dose of radiation.
  • A dosimetrist, who helps carry out your treatment plan by calculating the number of treatments and how long each treatment should last.
  • A radiation therapist, who sets you up for your treatments and runs the equipment that delivers the radiation.

Is radiation therapy expensive?

Treating cancer with radiation can be costly because it requires very complex equipment and the services of many health care professionals. The exact cost of your radiation therapy will depend on the type and number of treatments you need.

Most health insurance policies, including Part B of Medicare, cover charges for radiation therapy. If you need financial aid, contact the National Cancer Institute’s Information Service or the American Cancer Society, as they may be able to direct you to sources of help.

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