What to Expect During Radiation Treatment
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External beam radiation therapy is administered differently from brachytherapy (internal seed implants). You may receive one or both of these treatments. The following sections describe what you may experience during treatment administration.
External Beam Radiation Therapy Treatments
When you undergo external beam radiation therapy treatment, each session is painless, like getting an X-ray. The radiation is directed to your tumor from a machine located outside of your body. One of the benefits of radiation therapy is that it is usually given as a series of outpatient treatments and you may not need to miss work or experience the type of recuperation period that can follow other treatments.
Treatments are usually scheduled five days a week, every day except weekends, and continue for three to 10 weeks. Some patients receive hyperfractionated radiation therapy, in which radiation treatments are given more than once a day. Other times, only one or a few treatments are required, such as for the treatment of cancer that has spread to the bone. This is called hypofractionated radiation therapy. The number of radiation treatments you will need depends on the size, location and type of cancer you have, your general health and other medical treatments you may be receiving.
The radiation therapist will administer your external beam treatment following your radiation oncologist's instructions. It will take roughly five to 15 minutes for you to be positioned for treatment and for the equipment to be set up. If an immobilization device was made during simulation, it will be used during every treatment to make sure that you are in the exact same position every day.
Once you are positioned correctly, the therapist will leave the room and go into an adjoining control room to closely monitor you on a television screen while administering the radiation. There is a microphone in the treatment room so you can always talk with the therapist if you have any concerns. The machine can be stopped at any time if you are feeling ill or uncomfortable.
The radiation therapist may move the treatment machine and treatment table to target the radiation beam to the exact area of the tumor. The machine might make noises during treatment that sound like clicking or whirring. These noises are nothing to be afraid of, and the radiation therapist is in complete control of the machine at all times.
The radiation therapy team carefully aims the radiation to decrease the dose to the normal tissues surrounding the tumor. Still, radiation will affect some healthy cells. The time in between daily treatments allows your healthy cells to repair much of the radiation damage. Most patients are treated on an outpatient basis, and many can continue with normal daily activities.
Sometimes a course of treatment is interrupted for a day or more. This may happen if you develop side effects that require a break in treatment. These missed treatments may be made up by adding treatments at the end. Try to arrive on time and not miss any of your appointments.
Your radiation oncologist monitors your daily treatment and may alter your radiation dose based on these observations. Also, your doctor may order blood tests, X-ray examinations and other tests to see how your body is responding to treatment. If the tumor shrinks, another simulation may be done. This allows your radiation oncologist to change the treatment to destroy the rest of the tumor and spare even more normal tissue.
» More on Brachytherapy and Weekly Checks during treatment
Your doctor and primary nurse will evaluate you every week during treatment. They will monitor your progress and help you manage any side effects. This is called an ontreatment visit (OTV) and will occur on a specific day of the week. If you would like to see your doctor or nurse on a day other than this scheduled day, please tell your radiation therapist. You will usually have one or more blood tests and X-rays during your course of treatment.
After Your Treatment
At the end of your course of radiation therapy, you will receive post-therapy instructions and a follow-up appointment to see your doctor in one to 12 weeks. Along with periodic X-rays and blood tests, it is important for you to continue with regular exams to monitor closely the results of your treatment.