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What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high doses of radiation. Radiation kills a cancer cell by damaging the cell’s DNA. Cancer cells then can’t replicate and each radiation therapy destroys a bit more of the cancer cells. The beams used in radiation therapy can be targeted to millimeter accuracy, allowing the tumor to be destroyed and leaving the normal tissue almost unharmed.

How is external beam radiation therapy given?

External beam radiation therapy comes from a machine that aims radiation at your cancer. The machine is large and may be noisy. The machine doesn’t touch you, but rotates around you, sending radiation to your body from many directions. External beam radiation therapy is aimed and delivered to a specific part of your body. Most people receive external beam radiation therapy daily, Monday through Friday. Treatments usually take on average 15 minutes.

What does radiation therapy do to cancer cells?

Radiation kills or slows the growth of cancer cells. Radiation therapy is used to treat cancer. Radiation can be used to cure, stop, or slow the growth of cancer. When a cure is not possible, radiation may be used to shrink cancer tumors in order to reduce pressure. Radiation therapy used in this way can treat problems such as pain.

How long does radiation therapy take to work?

Radiation therapy does not kill cancer cells right away. It takes days to weeks before cancer cells start to die. Then, cancer cells keep dying for weeks or months after radiation therapy ends.

What does radiation therapy do to healthy cells?

Radiation kills or slows the growth of cancer cells, it can also affect nearby healthy cells. The healthy cells almost always recover after treatment is over. But sometimes people may have side effects that do not get better or are severe. Our doctors try to protect healthy cells during treatment by balancing the dose of radiation to be low enough to limit damage and high enough to kill the cancer cells. The treatments are spread out over time which allows normal cells to recover while cancer cells die. Using special techniques such as IMRT and 3-D imaging allows the physician to accurately treat the cancer area and minimize risk to healthy cells.

Does Radiation therapy hurt?

No, Radiation therapy does not hurt while it is being given. The actual radiation beam is only on for a few seconds during treatment. Patients lie still during the treatment. During treatment, patients do not feel anything.

What are the side effects?

The side effects of radiation treatment vary from patient to patient. You may have no side effects or only a few mild ones. You may notice some tiredness or fatigue. The side effects depend on which body part is being treated. Before starting treatment, your doctor and nurse will discuss the side effects that you will most likely experience during the radiation treatment. You may notice skin changes, like a sunburn or tan. This doesn’t occur right away, but towards the middle to the end of treatment. Using recommended soaps and applying recommended topical agents help to reduce skin irritation. Most side effects of radiation therapy can be taken care of with appropriate medications. Radiation therapy doesn’t make patients radioactive. Once treatment is done, there is no risk. Patients may resume their normal activities as soon as they leave the treatment room. Many patients do work, exercise, and drive themselves to appointments while receiving radiation treatments.

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