Radiation therapy is an outpatient treatment that targets and kills cancer cells while minimizing damage to healthy tissues. Here’s what you can expect.

Radiation treatment, also known as radiation therapy, is a common cancer treatment that uses high energy rays to target and kill cancer cells while minimizing damage to healthy tissue. It’s an important part of cancer care because it can shrink tumors, reduce swelling and inflammation, and even cure some cancers.

Doctors often recommend radiation therapy alongside other treatments like surgery or chemotherapy, and they carefully plan the radiation therapy to improve outcomes. In fact, about half of all cancer patients receive radiation therapy.

Let’s talk about what to expect and how to prepare for radiation treatment.

During radiation treatment, you can expect the following:

  1. Initial consultation: You’ll meet with a radiation oncologist to discuss your medical history and whether radiation therapy is the best option for you.
  2. Simulation: You’ll do a simulation session, where you’ll be positioned for treatment and undergo imaging (like a CT scan) to help plan your treatment.
  3. Treatment planning: Based on the simulation, the oncologist will create a detailed plan for your radiation treatment, including the dose and the areas to target.
  4. Treatment delivery: You’ll typically undergo daily external beam radiation therapy (EBRT) sessions over several weeks. EBRT is delivered from a machine that targets the specific treatment area. Brachytherapy places radiation sources inside the body near the cancer. Proton beam therapy and MRI technology may be used to improve tumor targeting and minimize side effects. On average, each session can last anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes.
  5. Monitoring and follow-up: Your oncologist will monitor your progress and manage side effects during treatment. Afterward, you’ll have regular follow-up appointments to check for recurrence and monitor your health.

How to prepare your body for radiation therapy:

  • Eat light: You can have a light, healthy meal a few hours before your session to maintain energy without causing discomfort.
  • Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water before your appointment to stay hydrated.
  • Avoid skin irritants: Do not apply lotions, perfumes, or deodorants to the treatment area. Wear loose, comfortable clothing to avoid irritation.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine: Avoid alcohol and caffeine on the day of your treatment. They can dehydrate you and affect your body’s response to therapy.
  • Rest well: Try to get a good night’s sleep before your treatment. This may help your body handle the stress of therapy.
  • Plan for transportation: Arrange for someone to drive you to and from your appointment if you’re feeling anxious or unwell.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: Try to engage in relaxation exercises such as deep breathing or meditation, or listen to calming music before your session to reduce anxiety and stress.
  • Avoid smoking: If you smoke, refrain from smoking before your treatment. It can affect your blood flow and healing process.
  • Follow medical instructions: Stick to any pre-treatment protocols given by your doctor, such as fasting or taking specific medications.

Here are some questions you may consider discussing with your oncologist:

  • What is the goal of my radiation therapy? This can help you understand whether the treatment aims to cure the cancer, manage its growth, or ease symptoms.
  • What are the potential side effects? You may feel more prepared if you know the short-term and long-term side effects and how you can manage them. Two of the most common side effects are radiation-induced fatigue and skin irritation or rashes. There are ways to manage these side effects and reduce their effect on your quality of life.
  • How should I prepare for each session? You can get specific instructions on dietary restrictions, hydration, skin care, and any other preparations needed before treatment.
  • How will radiation therapy affect my daily life? It may help to learn about any potential effects on your work, social activities, and physical abilities.
  • How long will each session last? Understanding the duration of each treatment session and the overall treatment schedule can help you plan.
  • What follow-up care will I need? You may want to discuss the plan for post-treatment monitoring, follow-up appointments, and any additional therapies.
  • Are there any lifestyle changes I should make? You can get advice on diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption, and stress management.
  • What other treatment options are available? Your doctor can help you explore complementary and alternative treatments that might be suitable for your condition.
  • How will we monitor the effectiveness of the therapy? You can learn about the tests and evaluations that will be used to track your progress.
  • What support services are available? Ask about resources such as counseling, support groups, and financial assistance.

It’s helpful to bring a partner, friend, or family member to the appointment. This person can help you ask questions, take notes, and ensure you follow your treatment plan effectively.

Having a trusted person to discuss your concerns with can also provide emotional support, help you remember and process information, and assist in decision-making.

When going for radiation treatment, it’s helpful to bring:

  • Identification: Bring your ID or any necessary documents for check-in.
  • Health insurance information: Have your insurance card or information ready.
  • Medications list: Bring a list of medications you’re currently taking.
  • Comfort items: Bring items like a blanket or pillow for comfort during treatment.
  • Medical records: If you have any relevant medical records or imaging results, bring them along.
  • Snacks and water: Have a light snack and water in case you need them before or after treatment.
  • Comfortable clothing: Wear loose, comfortable clothing that’s easy to remove if needed for treatment.
  • Support person: You may want to bring a family member or friend for support.

Here are a few things to arrange before having radiation therapy:

  • Transportation: You’ll need to plan your transportation to and from the treatment center. If you can’t drive, arrange for a ride from family, friends, or a ride service.
  • Meal preparation: You may want to prepare nutritious, easy-to-digest meals in advance. You can batch-cook and freeze meals to save time and energy on treatment days.
  • Child care: Arrange for child care during appointments. You can coordinate with family, friends, or professional services, and be sure to have backup plans in place.
  • Work and school: It’s best to discuss your treatment schedule with your employer or school to arrange for time off, flexible hours, or remote work options.
  • Home care: You may want to organize help with household chores. You can enlist family and friends, or hire services for cleaning, laundry, and grocery shopping.
  • Rest and recovery space: Create a quiet, comfortable space at home for rest and recovery after treatments.
  • Support system: Try to build a support network of family, friends, or support groups for emotional and logistical help.
  • Medical supplies and prescriptions: You’ll need to ensure you have all necessary medical supplies and prescriptions filled in advance. Keep track of medication schedules.
  • Financial planning: It helps to understand treatment costs and plan accordingly. You can discuss payment options, insurance coverage, and financial assistance with your provider.
  • Time management: You can use a calendar to manage appointments, rest periods, work, family obligations, and self-care activities.

Here are the potential side effects of radiation therapy:

  • fatigue
  • skin changes (redness or discoloration, dryness, itching, peeling)
  • hair loss in the treated area
  • nausea and vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • mouth and throat issues (sores, dryness, difficulty swallowing)
  • digestive problems (diarrhea, bowel discomfort)
  • urinary issues (frequent urination, discomfort, burning sensation)
  • changes in blood counts (lowered white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets)
  • sexual and reproductive changes (fertility issues, changes in sexual function)

Tips for managing side effects from radiation

To help manage your side effects, you can try:

  • resting when needed, but also staying active with light exercise
  • using gentle, fragrance-free soaps and moisturizers for skin care
  • eating small, frequent meals and avoiding heavy, greasy foods to manage nausea
  • staying hydrated and considering ginger or anti-nausea medications as needed
  • eating soft, bland foods and avoiding spicy or acidic foods for mouth and throat issues
  • protecting your scalp from the sun and cold by wearing a hat or scarf
  • drinking plenty of fluids and avoiding caffeine and alcohol for urinary issues
  • practicing good hygiene to prevent infections due to changes in blood counts
  • reporting any severe discomfort, signs of infection, or unusual changes to your doctor
  • communicating with your partner and getting counseling if experiencing sexual or reproductive changes

Here are some tips for boosting your energy:

  • Maintain a balanced diet: Eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods, and consume smaller meals throughout the day.
  • Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water.
  • Get regular exercise: Try to engage in light physical activities.
  • Prioritize sleep: It’s best to aim for 7 to 9 hours of restful sleep per night.
  • Manage stress: You may want to practice relaxation techniques.
  • Laughter therapy: Watch a funny movie, read a humorous book, or spend time with loved ones to enjoy a good laugh, which can increase energy and reduce stress.
  • Nature therapy: Spending time outdoors in nature can have a rejuvenating effect on your mind and body, boosting energy levels.
  • Take short naps: Limit naps to 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Stay socially connected: Try to spend time with family and friends.
  • Iron supplements: If you have anemia, your doctor may recommend iron supplements.
  • B vitamins: Some B vitamins can help with energy metabolism, but it’s best to discuss this with your doctor before taking any new vitamins.

Radiation therapy is a treatment that uses high energy radiation to target and destroy cancer cells. Doctors often recommend it alongside surgery or chemotherapy.

Many people complete radiation therapy successfully and go on to lead healthy lives. Plus, advances in technology are continually improving radiation therapy, making it more effective and safer for people with cancer.

Do your best to surround yourself with supportive people, follow your treatment plan, and take care of yourself.