Radiation Therapy -- What It Is, How It Helps

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What should I ask my doctor?

Cancer is different for each person, and your radiation therapy will be planned just for you. Work closely with your doctor and nurse to decide what’s best for you. Ask the doctor, nurses, and others on your team all the questions you have. They know the most about radiation and how it works.

Be ready. Write down questions ahead of time. Take them with you, and don’t be afraid to say you need to know more. Nothing you say will sound silly or strange to your doctor or nurse. They know you want to learn as much about radiation as you can. All patients who get radiation have questions. Here are some you might want to ask:

  • What is the goal of radiation therapy in my case?
  • Will it stop the spread of cancer?
  • Will it kill or shrink the tumor?
  • How will we know if the radiation is working?
  • If I’m getting radiation after surgery, will it kill any cancer cells left behind? Could radiation alone be used instead of surgery?
  • Are there other ways to treat my cancer?
  • How will I get radiation, how often, and for how long?
  • What side effects should I watch for?
  • Will any of these side effects change my eating, drinking, exercise, work, or sex life?
  • Will the treatment or side effects change the way I look?
  • How long might the side effects last?
  • What’s the chance that the cancer will spread or come back if I get radiation? What’s the chance that the cancer will spread or come back if I don’t get it?
  • Does my insurance cover radiation? If not, how will I pay for it?
  • Will I still be able to work (or go to school) during treatment?

Will I be able to work during treatment?

Some people work all the way through treatment, and others don’t. Even if you do keep working, you may still need to take some extra time off. It’s good to know about your rights at work and how to keep your health insurance. If you have any questions about work or your insurance, please call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345.

If you have stopped working, you can go back to your job as soon as you and your doctor believe you are up to it, even while getting radiation. Make sure you explain what you do each day at work and how it affects your body. If you have to do a lot of lifting or heavy work, you may need to find out if you can change what you do until you get your strength back. Talk with your doctor or call us if you have questions about going back to work.

How is radiation given?

Radiation can be given in 2 ways – from a machine outside the body and/or from objects put inside the body. Some people get both.

Radiation that comes from outside your body is called external beam radiation. (External means outside.) A machine sends high-energy beams from outside the body to the tumor and some of the area around the tumor.

When a radiation source is put inside you, it’s called internal radiation therapy. (Internal means inside.) This lets the doctor give a large dose of radiation to the cancer cells. The radioactive source is called an implant. It might look like a wire, pellet, or seeds. The implant is put very near or right inside the tumor, and the radiation travels only a very short distance. The implant can be left in place forever or just for a short time. If it’s left in your body, the implant gives off less and less radiation over time until it stops.


Last Medical Review: 06/17/2014
Last Revised: 06/17/2014