Frequently Asked Questions


How does the radiation therapy work?

Radiation therapy works by inflicting irreversible DNA damage to cancer cells. While healthy, normal cells are able repair any DNA damage inflicted by radiation, cancer cells cannot. This results in the selective elimination of cancer cells and the preservation healthy cells within the targeted area.

Does radiation affect normal healthy tissues?

Radiation therapy does affect normal cells, but only temporarily. This is why acute side effects from radiation, such as skin irritation, sometimes occur.  However, because healthy cells generally repair this type of DNA damage quickly, any acute side effects that patients may experience usually go away within a few weeks.

What happens during my treatment?

Radiation therapists will bring you into the treatment room and position you on the treatment couch as prescribed during the simulation appointment. If “tattoos” were placed on the skin, they will be used to properly align the radiation beam. The linear accelerator (which generates the radiation) will then deliver the proper amount of radiation prescribed by the radiation oncologist.

How many treatments will I need?

The total amount of radiation treatments is largely dependent on the type of cancer being treated. A typical course for prostate cancer, for example, is 9 weeks. Breast cancer treatments last from 4-6 weeks. The radiation oncologist will outline the treatment course and inform you of your overall treatment time.

Will my radiation treatments hurt?

No. Like routine x-rays, radiation treatments are painless.

What are the side effects of radiation treatment?

The side effects are dependent on the site being treated. The nurse and radiation oncologist will discuss all potential side effects prior to commencing with therapy. Most radiation side effects will resolve several weeks after the last treatment. Universally, fatigue has been recognized as a common side effect from radiation therapy, regardless of the treatment site. The fatigue occurs in nearly 30% of all patients and is quite minor. In general, you can continue to work while on therapy.

What should I do if I have any reactions to my treatments?

Report any side effect to the radiation oncologist, nurse, or therapist before your treatment session. They may be able to prescribe medications, creams, or therapies to alleviate your symptoms.

Will radiation therapy hurt my skin?

This depends on the body site being treated. For breast and head/neck cancer patients, the skin may harbor cancer cells. Consequently, the radiation oncologist will want to deliver full dose to the skin. However, skin will remain intact for most treatment sites.

Will my radiation therapy treatments cause me to lose my hair?

Radiation will only cause hair loss if the scalp is being treated. This may occur for some brain tumor and head and neck cancer treatments. Otherwise, hair loss should not occur.

Will I be radioactive after my treatments?

No. You will not be “radioactive” during or after the treatments.

Do I need to be on a special diet during my treatments?
Radiation may affect your bowels if this is included in the treatment field. If so, a dietician will meet with you and inform you of appropriate things to consume and avoid. In general, a sensible diet with adequate calories is recommended.
Should I continue to take my normal medications during my treatments?

Yes. Medications typically prescribed for hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol should not interfere at all with the radiation treatments. However, a complete list of medications should be given to the nurse/ physician prior to commencing with radiation treatments to ensure no adverse effects.

How long do the treatments last?

The typical time of treatment is 20 minutes. This can be slightly longer for patients receiving IMRT treatments. The actual time that the radiation is “on” is less than 5 minutes. Therefore, the majority of time is spent by the therapists ensuring proper immobilization and localization of the treatment site.

Will I be able to drive myself to and from my treatments?

Yes. If you were able to drive prior to the commencement of radiation treatments, then you should be able to drive during the treatments.

What should I do if I miss one of my scheduled treatments?
This will occasionally happen due to inclement weather, personal reasons, or impromptu radiation machine maintenance. The missed session will simple be added to the original schedule.