Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and told you needed radiation therapy, you almost certainly have a lot of questions. Below, we’ve answered some of the more common questions we hear from our patients.

Does radiation therapy hurt?

The radiation treatments themselves don’t hurt, but the treatments can have side effects that cause discomfort throughout the course of treatment. We will make you as comfortable as we can before your treatment begins. There is an intercom in the treatment room, keeping communication with your radiation therapist open.

Will I lose my hair?

Radiation therapy typically does not cause hair loss, unless the beam is aimed at a body part that grows hair, like your scalp. Your treatment team can give you more information about what body changes to expect during radiation therapy.

Is it safe for me to be around my family, friends, and pets while I’m having radiation therapy?

If you’re receiving external beam radiation therapy like IGRT, IMRT, 3D conformal therapy, or stereotactic body radiation therapy, the answer is yes. You will not be radioactive after your treatment, so it’s safe for you to hug your kids and pet the dog. If you’re getting radiopharmaceutical therapy, you will have to be a little bit more careful. Your treatment team will provide you with a list of things to do to make sure all your loved ones stay safe.

How long does radiation treatment take?

A typical single radiation therapy session takes 10 to 15 minutes. The treatment may take a bit longer if we need to reposition you so the treatment beam is right on target. Stereotactic body radiation therapy sessions can be between 30 minutes and an hour long.

A course of IMRT or 3D-CRT is typically five days a week—Monday through Friday—for 5 to 9 weeks, depending on your tumor type and location. When radiation therapy is used for palliative care, the course of treatment is shorter, along the lines of 2 to 3 weeks. Stereotactic body radiation therapy delivers a higher dose of radiation and is given in one to five sessions over 1 to 10 days.

Does radiation cause nausea?

It can, but it doesn’t always. If your radiotherapy sessions are for treatment of the gastrointestinal tract (your mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestines including your colon), liver, brain, or entire body, this may increase your risk of nausea. The size of the area being treated and the dose of radiation also determine the risk of nausea and vomiting. If you’re receiving chemotherapy and radiation (also known as chemoradiation) at the same time, you are more likely to get nausea. The good news is that there are very effective medications for treating nausea. If you’re experiencing this, ask your treatment team for recommendations.

What other side effects does radiation therapy have?

Radiation therapy is usually well tolerated, and many patients are able to keep doing most, if not all, of their normal daily activities. The most commonly reported side effect of radiation therapy is fatigue. Other side effects include loss of appetite and skin issues that occur only in the area being treated. For example, a breast cancer patient may have irritation, like a mild to moderate sunburn, on the skin above the tumor, or a patient with throat cancer may feel soreness when they swallow.

Does radiation affect your immune system?

For many patients, the answer to that question is no. This is because the radiation is focused in very specific places in your body and the beam can be designed to avoid the bone marrow, which is where most of our blood cells, including the white blood cells that give us immunity, are produced. That said, if cancer spreads into your bones, it, too, can stop your body from making those red and white blood cells.
Patients receiving total body irradiation in preparation for a bone marrow transplant are at the highest risk for suppressed immunity. Chemotherapy often lowers the immune system, so if you are receiving chemoradiation, you will need to take precautions to avoid infection.

Radiation therapy vs chemotherapy: What’s the difference?

Both radiotherapy and chemotherapy are essential tools in fighting cancer, and are often used together in a process called chemoradiation. Chemotherapy uses medications that are designed to kill or shrink cancer cells and is administered either through an IV needle or port, as a pill, or in an injection. Radiation therapy kills cancer cells by using beams of high energy like protons or x-rays.
The big difference between radiation therapy vs chemotherapy is that radiation therapy is a “local” treatment; that is, it treats the specific area where your tumor is located. Chemotherapy is called a “systemic” therapy because it travels all through your body in your blood. 

Schedule Your Appointment Today

If you are referred for radiation therapy during your cancer care, you get to choose where to receive treatment. We are here to support and encourage you—call us today to schedule your first appointment with one of our radiation oncologists at the cancer center nearest to you.