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What to Expect When Having Radiation Therapy

Key takeaways

  • Radiotherapy is a treatment for cancer that uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells. It may be used before, during, or after surgery, and can also be used in conjunction with chemotherapy.
  • A radiation oncology team typically includes a radiation oncologist, radiation oncology nurse, medical radiation physicist, dosimetrist, and radiation therapy technologist, who work together to design and administer the treatment plan.
  • Before radiotherapy treatment begins, a patient will typically be referred to a radiation oncologist, have their medical records reviewed, undergo a physical exam, and have imaging scans to locate the tumor. The patient will then be asked to sign a consent form and a treatment plan will be developed before the first session.

Scheduling your initial radiotherapy session can create concern and anxiety. And of course many are worried and feel overwhelmed. 

At Advanced Urology Institute, we encourage our patients to be partners in the process and to educate themselves about the procedures. We believe that the more you know about radiotherapy before your treatment, the more confident you’ll be to face the treatment and the more likely you’ll play an active role in your recovery.

So what is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is the treatment of cancer using focused high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells. During treatment, specific amounts of the radiation are aimed at tumors or parts of the body affected by the cancer.  Once administered, the radiation kills, stops, or slows down the growth of cancer cells.

Radiotherapy may be used before surgery to shrink a tumor to a smaller size. But it may also be used during surgery to target certain cancer cells. In some cases, radiation therapy is used after surgery to destroy the remaining cancer cells.

When paired with chemotherapy, it can help to improve treatment outcomes. And in cancer cases where a cure is not possible, radiation therapy can be used for palliative purposes—to reduce pain, pressure or other side effects of treatment.

While the radiation affects all cells, healthy ones are able to repair themselves and recover their normal cell function after treatment. Alternatively, unhealthy cells, such as cancer cells, aren’t able to repair after radiation.  Hence, the treatment helps to destroy and eliminate unhealthy cells with minimal adverse effects on healthy cells.

What is a radiation oncology team?

Typically, radiotherapy is designed and administered by a team of highly trained medical professionals. The team usually includes a radiation oncologist, radiation oncology nurse, medical radiation physicist, dosimetrist, and radiation therapy technologist.

The radiation oncologist is the doctor who specializes in delivering radiotherapy for treating cancer and who oversees the overall treatment protocols. The doctor works closely with other team members to develop the treatment plan.

The radiation oncology nurse is skilled and experienced in caring for patients receiving radiation therapy. The nurse answers patient questions about the treatment, monitors the patient’s health during the treatment, and helps to manage the side effects.

The medical radiation physicist designs the treatment plan and is an expert in using radiation equipment. To ensure the right doses are administered with accuracy and precision, the radiation physicist is a key member of the team.

And finally, the radiation therapy technologist (radiation therapist) will directly operate the treatment machines such as a linear accelerator during therapy sessions and give the scheduled treatments. Other professionals might include social workers, nutritionists (dietitians), dentists, and rehabilitation therapists, such as physical therapists or speech therapists.

What happens before your treatment?

You’re usually referred to a radiation oncologist when your doctor believes radiotherapy might be an option worth considering. The radiation oncologist will then review your medical records, conduct a physical exam, and order various tests. The doctor then explains your options, speaks with you about the potential benefits and risks of the treatment and answers questions.

If you decide to proceed with radiotherapy, you’ll be asked to grant permission by signing the consent form. Your treatment team will then design the treatment plan before your first session.

Your treatment team will use imaging scans, such as computed tomography (CT), X-ray, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify the tumor location. You’ll then receive small marks on your skin to assist the team in targeting the radiation beam at the tumor.

In addition, you may be fitted with immobilization devices such as tapes, foam sponges, headrests, simply molds or plaster casts. These items will help you stay secure and in the same position throughout treatment. If the radiation is targeting your head or neck, you may receive a thermoplastic mask, which is a mesh mask molded to your face and secured to the table. 

Though it is crucial for your body to remain in the same position for each treatment, your oncology treatment team cares about your comfort and would like to hear your suggestions. So speak up about how you’re feeling. Communicate with the team so you can find a comfortable position every time.

What happens during treatment?

Radiotherapy is generally scheduled for five days a week over a six to seven week period although the treatment can last for as little as two to three weeks if the goal is merely palliative. Over the course of treatment, you’ll receive small doses (fractions) of daily radiation instead of large doses. This helps to best target cancer cells and protect healthy cells in the treatment area. Compliance and consistency is key. It is advisable that you complete all your sessions as scheduled and not miss or delay any treatments. 

Before treatment is administered, your radiation therapy technologist will ask you to change into a gown and lie on the movable bed. The marks on your skin are used to position the machine and table—though you may be positioned using molds, boards or special holders. If necessary, special blocks or shields are used to protect your normal organs. You’ll then have to remain still in that position during your treatments breathing normally.

For each treatment session, you’ll be in the room for 10-30 minutes with the radiation administered for 1-2 minutes of that time. As soon as the treatment begins, the radiation therapy technologist will leave you alone in the room with a closed circuit TV and an intercom. The technologist will see and hear you at all times. So if you think you need to move, just notify the therapist and the machine will be turned off and adjusted.

The technologist controls the machine from outside as treatment progresses and monitors the machine at all times.  The treatment is painless and you’ll not see, smell or hear the radiation. In between your treatment sessions, you’ll need to undergo various tests and checks to confirm that the treatment is going on as earlier planned.

For instance, port films will be taken to ensure the positioning remains as it should be. Weekly blood tests may also be run to check your blood cell counts. Plus, your radiation oncologist will meet with you once a week to assess how your body is responding to treatment. Be sure to tell the doctor of any changes or concerns.

Top-notch radiotherapy services

At Advanced Urology Institute we provide cutting-edge treatments for cancer. Our radiotherapy service is tailored to deliver specifically targeted radiation to precisely target and kill cancer cells.

For more information on radiotherapy and other forms of cancer treatment, visit the site “Advanced Urology Institute”.


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Advanced Urology Institute

Advanced Urology Institute is the largest urology practice in Florida. We are dedicated to improving the lives of our patients by providing excellent Patient-Centered Care. Set an appointment or visit our closest office near you.

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