Radiation therapy Fact Sheet
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What is radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy, also known as radiotherapy, has been used as a treatment for cancer for more than 100 years. Depending on the individual case, radiation therapy may cure cancer, control the disease or just help relieve its symptoms.
In the last 10 years, there have been major advancements in the effectiveness of radiation therapy and a reduction in side effects. Today, the most common external radiation treatments focus powerful X-rays on the cancers to destroy the cancer cells. Other types of radiation include electron beam therapy and internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy).
How is radiation given?
Radiation therapy is customized for each patient depending on the type of cancer, location of the cancer, and the goals of treatment. A radiation oncologist will use a patient's prior imaging studies, surgical reports and pathology reports to set the goals and determine a treatment plan. The radiation oncologist is usually part of a multidisciplinary team that works to integrate surgery, chemotherapy and radiation to deliver the best therapy possible.
Most patients will receive external beam radiation, which uses focused X-ray beams to kill the cancer cells. Specialized forms of radiation delivery include stereotactic body radiation therapy, the Tomotherapy® Hi-Art® treatment system and the Gamma Knife®. All of these treatments are available at the UK Markey Cancer Center.
What you can expect during radiation therapy
Simulation process — To plan a patient's radiation therapy treatment, the physician begins with a simulation or planning session. After a physical examination and a review of your medical history, your treatment team maps out the position you will be in for each treatment and the exact locations on your body where the radiation will be given. Your radiation oncologist will discuss the side effects you may expect during and after treatment. Sometimes, the area on your body that requires treatment will be marked to make sure radiation is given properly. The treatment team may also make headrests or other immobilization devices that help to position you correctly during your treatment. Usually the patient receives a CAT scan in the radiation medicine department in the exact treatment position to ensure accuracy.
Treatment plan — Once the simulation process is complete, the radiation oncologist will determine your treatment plan by mapping out the size and location of the cancer and normal tissues in the treatment field. These images are then used to determine the type of machine to use, the amount of radiation necessary and the number of treatments. The plan will tailor the radiation dose to the cancer while minimizing effects on normal tissues. Treatment planning can take several days to complete; your radiation oncologist will let you know approximately how long planning will take and when you will start your treatment.
Beginning treatment — Arrive a few minutes early on the first day of treatment. On the first day and once a week thereafter, your physician will take images called "check films." These films do not show whether the tumor is shrinking or changing, but physicians use them to double-check patient alignment and setup. This helps ensure the treatment is as accurate as possible. Your radiation therapy technologist will then set up a time for your daily treatment. Most external beam radiation treatments take only 30 minutes or so.
During treatment — Once a week, a radiation oncology nurse will record your temperature, weight and blood pressure and ask you a few questions. The radiation oncologist will see you to assess how your treatment is progressing and will be available to help you manage any side effects or problems that may occur.
To learn more about radiation therapy at UK HealthCare, visit our Radiation Medicine page.