Radiation therapy is one way to treat cancer. While most people have negative thoughts when they think of radiation, it has many uses and can be an effective cancer treatment when used properly.
Radiation is a form of energy that has many different wavelengths. Radiation therapy uses high-powered X-rays to kill cancer cells over time using a linear accelerator.
“At a certain wavelength, radiation can be in the form of sunlight. A different wavelength is ultraviolet light, and yet another is a microwave,” said Dr. Bevan Ly, radiation oncologist with Marshfield Clinic Health System. “The radiation used to treat cancer is a different wavelength than all of these.”
Patients often have many questions about radiation therapy including:
Does radiation therapy hurt?
During your treatment, you should not feel pain. After a while, the effects of radiation can kill normal cells and so pain may be a possible side effect depending on the particular site that is being treated. For example, skin reactions are common when treating breast cancer.
Normal cells can recover from radiation therapy treatments, but tumor cells cannot repair the damage. This is why it is used as a treatment option for cancer.
Will I lose my hair?
The side effects of radiation therapy only occur in the area you are receiving treatment.
For instance, if you receive radiation therapy to your head, you may lose your hair. You also may have an upset stomach if you receive treatments in the stomach or diarrhea if your colon is being treated.
“Radiation therapy doesn’t cause a reaction to an area that isn’t being radiated. It is a very localized form of treatment,” Ly said.
Does radiation affect your skin?
Radiation therapy can cause a skin reaction because the radiation has to go through the skin to get to the body. This is called radiation dermatitis.
Radiation dermatitis can be worse if you are treating a cancer that is on the skin or right under the skin. However, this can be managed with skin creams and your physician will help you manage any skin reactions throughout your treatment and recovery.
How long does radiation therapy take?
Each treatment is typically short. However, the number of doses is different in each case. Your radiation oncologist will prescribe a specific number of doses depending on the type and size of your cancer.
Some cells are very sensitive to radiation and die quickly so you only need a low number of doses. Other cells are more resistant, requiring a higher number of treatments.
Why do I need a tattoo?
Your radiation oncologist only wants to treat the tumor and minimize the dose to your normal tissues. The treatment should typically be within a few millimeters of the same position every time.
To make sure this happens, your care team will need you to remain very still during your treatment. In most cases, they will use molds to help you stay still. The tattoo is the size of a freckle and is used every time to make sure you are in the same position.
To learn more about radiation oncology as a treatment method for cancer, talk with your radiation oncologist.