Radiation Therapy FAQs

FAQs about radiation therapy

Find answers to common questions about radiation therapy and the care provided at Scripps Health.

Why is radiation therapy used?

Radiation therapy can be used with either curative or palliative intent. When used with curative intent, the goal of radiation therapy is to eliminate cancer cells (including tumors) as part of a definitive (curative) treatment strategy. In the palliative care setting, the goal of radiation therapy is to slow tumor growth or shrink tumors to relieve pressure and pain, as well as prevent adverse events such as bone fractures, bleeding, paralysis and impingement on important organs.

Is radiation used with chemo, immunotherapy or surgery?

Depending on the type and stage of cancer, radiation therapy may be used in combination with other modalities, but it can also be an effective treatment on its own for some cancers.

How is radiation delivered?

Radiation therapy is delivered through highly sophisticated equipment and software managed by a cancer team, that consists of radiation oncologists, physicists, dosimetrists and radiation therapists. Radiation therapy has been used safely and effectively for more than a century to treat cancer, and the field of radiation oncology is continually advancing through development of proven technologies.

How long does radiation take?

Each treatment generally takes 15 minutes, and treatment courses can range from a single treatment to multiple treatments administered over a period of time (e.g., two to nine weeks), depending on the type of cancer being treated and the type of radiation therapy being used.

Does radiation therapy hurt?

Radiation therapy itself is completely painless. It is like having an X-ray.

What side effects will I experience?

Potential side effects of radiation therapy depend on many factors, including the area being treated, the dose of radiation, your age and general health, and previous treatment or concurrent treatments such as chemotherapy. Your radiation oncologist will review the relevant side effects during your consultation for your radiation treatment regimen. Although most side effects are temporary, when they arise you should talk to your radiation oncologist or a nurse to learn how to ease any discomfort you may feel.

Are daily activities limited during treatment?

Your care team can provide details about activity restrictions. This will also depend on the area being treated with radiation, the dose of radiation, your age and general health, and previous treatment or concurrent treatments such as chemotherapy. Generally, patients are encouraged to continue with their usual routines. Many patients continue to work, while others may need some time off to manage emotional and physical demands of a cancer diagnosis and treatment. What is most important is to listen to your body and make sure you’re getting enough rest and not over-extending yourself.

Is a special diet required during treatment?

A well-balanced diet for most patients will serve them well with no modifications necessary. For patients whose treatment involves the head and neck, pelvis, esophagus and stomach regions, radiation therapy will impact regular eating habits and require new nutrition strategies and approaches that your nurse will help you manage.

Will I become radioactive or pose a danger to my family?

For external beam therapy, no. With internal and systemic radiation therapy, radiation may be emitted for a short period following treatment. Your care team will be happy to discuss any concerns you may have.

Can I have radiation treatments while pregnant?

If you know you are pregnant or there is a possibility of a pregnancy, please tell your radiation oncologist. It is important to avoid pregnancy during any type of cancer treatment, including radiation therapy.

Does radiation therapy cause infertility?

Radiation therapy to the pelvic area can affect the reproductive systems of women and men. Your care team will be able to discuss potential side effects for your specific treatment.