General Treatment Options



What is radiation?

Radiation therapy uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. This type of therapy can be used to cure cancer, prevent it from returning or stop or slow down the cancer’s growth. It can also be used to shrink a tumor to treat pain or relieve other problems caused by a growing tumor.

There are two main types of radiation therapy:

  • External beam: A large machine aims radiation at your cancer. The machine moves around you to send radiation to a specific part of your body from different directions. This is used to treat many kinds of cancer.
  • Internal radiation: Radiation as a solid or a liquid is put inside your body. The solid can be in the form of seeds, ribbons or capsules put in your body or near the cancer. The liquid is delivered through an IV line and travels throughout the body. Solid therapy is used to treat cancers of the head and neck, breast, cervix, prostate and eye. Liquid therapy is often used to treat thyroid cancer.

Some people may only have radiation therapy, but often it is used along with other treatments. It is common to have radiation before, during and after surgery and chemotherapy. ​

How long will radiation take?

The actual radiation session usually takes only 15-30 minutes. For the therapy overall to work, it can take days or weeks of treatment to kill cancer cells. Cancer cells will then keep dying for weeks or months after the therapy ends.

Is radiation going to hurt?

Radiation therapy is painless during treatment.

How can I prepare for radiation?

Your doctor may have you do a simulation before treatment begins. This is like a practice run or a planning session. During treatments:

  • Wear clothes that are comfortable and soft, and easy to remove.
  • Do not wear clothes that are tight fitting near the treatment area.
  • Do not wear jewelry, adhesive bandages or powder in the treatment area.

How do I get to my appointment?

Make arrangements for someone to drive you to and from your appointment.

How do I pass the time while there? (What to bring?)

The treatments do not take long, but you may want to keep yourself busy while you wait. You can bring books, magazines, crossword puzzles or hobby materials. Or, bring headphones to listen to music or audio books. You can also try to relax using:

  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Prayer
  • Imagery

Am I going to lose my hair? When?

If you have radiation to the head, you may lose your hair. For some people, depending on the dose of radiation, the hair will not grow back the same as it was before. If hair loss happens, it most often starts within two weeks of treatment and gets worse one to two months after starting treatment. Often hair will start to grow back before treatment ends.

Will I get nauseous?

Some people may have nausea, depending on the type and location of the radiation. Make sure to stay hydrated. There may be medications you can take to ease the nausea, so let your doctor or nurse know if you don’t feel well.Some people may have nausea, depending on the type and location of the radiation. Make sure to stay hydrated. There may be medications you can take to ease the nausea, so let your doctor or nurse know if you don’t feel well.

What are the Side effects or radiation?

Radiation can damage healthy cells as well as cancer cells, causing fatigue and skin changes. Sometimes there is hair loss or mouth problems when radiation is given to the head. These early side effects are usually gone within a few weeks after treatment ends. Sometimes people have side effects that are more severe or do not get better. Or, they can affect you months or years after radiation therapy is over. When this happens, it is called late effects. Not everyone reacts to radiation the same way.

Doctors aim to protect your healthy cells by using as low a dose of radiation as possible. Your treatments will also be spread out over time to give your healthy cells a chance to recover. When possible, radiation will also be targeted to a precise part of the body to protect other cells.

What other questions should I ask about radiation?

To help you plan, other questions you can ask your doctor include:

  • Is this going to work?
  • What happens next?