Understanding Radiation Therapy

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Do the benefits of radiation therapy outweigh the risks and side effects?

Radiation therapy may be more helpful in some cases than in others. For example, some types of cancer are more sensitive to radiation than others. And some cancers are in areas that are easier to treat with radiation without causing major side effects.

There are lifetime dose limits of radiation. Doctors know the amount of radiation that normal parts of the body can safely get without causing damage that can’t be reversed. They use this information to help decide how much radiation to give and where to aim radiation during treatment. If a part of your body has been treated with radiation before, you may not be able to get radiation to that area a second time – it depends on how much radiation you got the first time. If one part of your body has already gotten the maximum safe lifetime dose of radiation, you might still be able to get radiation treatment to another area if the distance between the two areas is large enough.

If your doctor or cancer team recommends radiation treatment, it’s because they believe that the benefits you’ll get from it will outweigh the possible side effects. Still, this is something you must be comfortable with. Knowing as much as you can about the possible benefits and risks can help you be sure that radiation therapy is best for you. Questions to ask your doctor might include:

  • What is the purpose of radiation treatment for my type of cancer? To destroy or shrink the tumor? To prevent or stop cancer spread? To lessen the chance the cancer may come back?
  • If radiation is to be done after surgery, what are the chances it will kill any cancer cells that were left behind? Could radiation be used instead of surgery?
  • What’s the chance that the cancer will spread or come back if I do – or do not – have radiation therapy?
  • Are there other treatment options?
  • What can I do to be ready for treatment?
  • What will radiation treatment be like? How often is it given? How long will it take?
  • How will the radiation affect the area around the cancer?
  • What side effects am I likely to have?
  • Will any of these side effects affect how I do things, such as eat or drink, exercise, work, etc.?
  • Will side effects change how I look?
  • How long will the side effects last?
  • Will I be at higher risk for any other health problems in the future?

Radiation and pregnancy

Women: It’s important not to become pregnant while getting radiation therapy – radiation can harm the growing baby. If there’s a chance you might become pregnant, be sure to talk to you doctor about birth control options.

If you are or might be pregnant, let your doctor know before starting treatment.

Men: Little is known about radiation’s effect on the children conceived by men who are getting radiation therapy. Because of the uncertain risk, doctors often advise men to avoid getting a woman pregnant during and for some weeks after treatment.


Last Medical Review: 05/02/2014
Last Revised: 05/02/2014