Frequently Asked Questions


How does radiation therapy work?

Radiation therapy kills cancer cells by damaging their DNA (molecules inside cells that carry genetic information and pass it from one generation to the next). Radiation therapy can either damage DNA directly or create charged particles (free radicals) within the cells.  Such particles can damage the DNA.

Cancer cells with DNA that is damaged beyond repair stop dividing or die. When the damaged cells die, they are broken down and eliminated by the body’s natural processes.

We shrink tumors and eliminate cancer cells with precisely measured, high dose radiation. Our sophisticated computer images aim the radiation directly at the cancer cells, maximizing its effect on cancer cells while minimizing damage to healthy tissue.

How is radiation therapy administered?

It is often delivered:

Is radiation therapy safe?

Radiation has been used to treat patients for more than 100 years. Many modern advances have made radiation therapy safer and more effective.

Before you begin receiving radiation therapy, your radiation oncology team will carefully tailor your plan to make sure that you receive safe and accurate treatment. Treatment will be carefully planned to focus on the cancer while avoiding healthy organs. As part of our high-quality standards, members of your radiation therapy team will check and re-check your plan. Also, special computers are used to monitor and double-check the treatment machines to ensure that the proper treatment is given.

If you undergo external beam radiation therapy, you will not be radioactive after treatment because the radiation does not stay in your body. However, if you undergo brachytherapy, tiny radioactive seeds will be implanted inside your body – in the tumor or in the tissue surrounding the tumor –either temporarily or permanently. Your radiation oncologist will explain any special precautions that you, your family or friends may need to take.

How can I take care of my skin during radiotherapy?

Treat your skin gently during radiation therapy. You will not want to rub, scrub or scratch in the treatment area. Other skin care tips include:

  • Bathe in lukewarm water, avoiding contact with hot and cold water
  • Protect your skin from the sun with clothing, sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher or by staying indoors during peak sunlight hours
  • Use creams or toiletries recommended by your doctor, often unscented and formulated for sensitive skin
  • Wear loose clothing made of soft fabrics such as cotton
  • Avoid using adhesive tape or bandages on the treatment area. Your doctor can suggest alternative methods.

How is radiation therapy administered?

Radiation therapy can be given in two forms: external beam or internal brachytherapy.

Most people who receive radiation therapy for cancer have the external type. It is usually given during outpatient visits to a hospital or treatment center. With external therapy, a machine uses high-energy rays to target the cancer.

When brachytherapy is used, a radioactive substance is sealed in small containers sometimes called seeds.  These seeds are implanted directly into the tumor or inserted temporarily into a body cavity via a treatment device. 

What should I expect for my treatment?

Treatment usually begins between 7 to 10 business days after the simulation appointment, so we can complete a complex computerized treatment plan. The number and length of treatments will be determined by your specific needs and unique medical condition.

Though your first treatment may take 30 – 45 minutes, subsequent treatments are typically shorter (between 5 and 15 minutes) and painless.

Treatments are usually given once daily from Monday through Friday. Treatment courses can be as short as one day or as long as eight weeks.

Is radiation covered by insurance?

Most health insurance plans, including Medicare Part B, cover the cost for radiation therapy.

What can I do to take care of myself during treatment?

Your doctor will educate you about your treatment and the side effects you might have.

A few common tips include:

  • Get plenty of rest —You may feel more tired than normal during as well as several weeks after treatment.
  • Eat a balanced, nutritious diet – Your doctor or nurse may have recommendations for you.
  • Take care of the skin in the treatment area – If you receive external radiation therapy, the skin in the treatment area may become more sensitive or look and feel sunburned. Some soaps, lotions, deodorants, medicines, perfumes or cosmetics may irritate sensitive skin. Talk to your doctor or nurse for guidance.
  • Protect the treated area from the sun - Your skin may be extra sensitive to sunlight.
  • Do not rub, scrub or use adhesive tape on treated skin.
  • Do not put heat or cold on the treatment area without first talking with your doctor – Use only lukewarm water to wash the treated area.

If I need to leave work, when will I be able to return?

Many people continue to work while receiving radiation therapy.  However, if you have stopped working, you can return to work as soon as you feel up to it and under the advisement of your physician. If your job requires lifting or heavy physical activity, you may need to modify your activities until you have regained your strength.  Your doctor will provide you with more specific guidelines based on your medical condition and treatment plan.

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