How does radiation therapy work?

High doses of radiation can kill cells or keep them from growing and dividing. Radiation therapy is a useful tool for treating cancer because cancer cells grow and divide more rapidly than many of the normal cells around them. Although some normal cells are affected by radiation, most normal cells appear to recover more fully from the effects of radiation than do cancer cells. Doctors carefully limit the intensity of treatments and the area being treated so that the cancer will be affected more than normal tissue.

What the benefits and goals of radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is an effective way to treat many kinds of cancer in almost any part of the body. Half of all people with cancer are treated with radiation, and the number of cancer patients who have been cured is rising every day. For many patients, radiation is the only kind of treatment needed. Thousands of people are free of cancer after having radiation treatments alone or in combination with surgery, chemotherapy, or biological therapy.

Doctors can use radiation before surgery to shrink a tumor. After surgery, radiation therapy may be used to stop the growth of any cancer cells that remain. Your doctor may choose to use radiation therapy and surgery at the same time. This procedure is known as intraoperative radiation. In some cases, doctors use radiation along with anticancer drugs to destroy the cancer, instead of surgery.

Even when curing the cancer is not possible, radiation therapy still can bring relief. Many patients find the quality of their lives improved when radiation therapy is used to shrink tumors and reduce pressure, bleeding, pain, or other symptoms of cancer. This is called palliative care.

Are there risks involved?

Like many other treatments for disease, there are risks for patients who are receiving radiation therapy. The brief high doses of radiation that damage or destroy cancer cells also can hurt normal cells. When this happens, the patient has side effects. The risk of side effects is usually less than the benefits of killing cancer cells.

Your doctor will not advise you to have any treatment unless the benefits -control of disease and relief from symptoms -are greater than the known risks. Although it will be many years before scientists know all of the possible risks of radiation therapy, they now know that it can control cancer.

How is radiation therapy given?

Radiation therapy can be provided in either of two forms: external or internal. Some patients have both forms, one after the other. At Riverwest, we only treat patients using external radiation therapy.

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. In external therapy, a machine directs the high-energy rays or particles at the cancer and the normal tissue surrounding it.

One type of machine that is used for radiation therapy is called a linear accelerator.

The various machines used for external radiation work in slightly different ways. Some are better for treating cancers near the skin surface; others work best on cancers deeper in the body.

When internal radiation therapy is used, a radioactive substance, or source, is sealed in small containers such as thin wires or tubes called implants. The implant is placed directly into a tumor or inserted into a body cavity. Sometimes, after a tumor has been removed by surgery, implants are put into the area around the incision to kill any tumor cells that may remain.

Another type of internal radiation therapy uses unsealed radioactive sources. The source is either taken by mouth or is injected into the body. If you have this type of treatment, you will probably need to stay in the hospital for several days.

What will it be like during a treatment?

Riverwest’s front office personnel are available to assist in the patient’s care by scheduling appointments, gathering pertinent information for the patient’s record and maintaining the patient’s records. Their charming and friendly approach provides a warm, welcoming environment to our center.

Is this going to hurt?

No, it is just like having an x-ray taken. You won’t feel anything.

How long is it going to take?

Your treatment will take approximately 15 – 30 minutes (time may vary) from setup to finish.

Is anyone in the room with me when I get my treatment?

No. We can’t stay in the room with you, but we will be watching you on camera. If you need anything, we will attend to it.

When will I know if the treatments are working?

The treatments continue to work for up to two weeks after you are finished. The radiation oncologist may order an x-ray or test during your treatment to check progress, or they may wait until a few weeks after you are finished. This is only if your referring physician has not done so. It is like a prescription of medicine. You must take it all before we can see how it has helped.

What do the x-rays show?

The films that we take during treatments are for localization only, not for diagnostic evaluation. If you do have diagnostic x-rays at the hospital, the radiologist will review the films and send a report to the radiation oncologist. After that, he will review them with you.

Can my family come in the treatment room with me?

No. During your treatment, we prefer that they wait in the waiting room. There are other patients in the office, and we want to give everyone as much privacy as possible.

Why do I have to come everyday?

The radiation works better if it’s given day after day. That way the cancer cells don’t have time to heal between treatments. You will be treated 5 days/week (Monday- Friday). The weekend allows your body time to rest and recuperate. The center is closed for major holidays. You will be informed in advance of any closings.

How often will I see the doctor?

Once every week. If you are experiencing problems or side effects, you should tell the nurses or radiation therapists so that the doctor will know what you are experiencing.

What will happen at the end of my treatment?

The doctor will talk with you about what to expect. He will also set-up a follow-up appointment. At that time, he may schedule a test or x-ray to check the status of your cancer if your referring physician (the doctor that sent you here) has not yet done so.