- Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families
- What is radiation therapy? When is it used?
- How does radiation therapy work?
- Do the benefits outweigh the risks and side effects?
- How much does radiation treatment cost?
- Who gives radiation treatments?
- Informed consent
- How is radiation therapy given?
- External radiation therapy
- Internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy)
- Systemic radiation therapy
- Preventing and managing side effects
- Skin problems
- Hair loss
- Blood count changes
- Eating problems
- How will I feel emotionally?
- Will side effects limit my activity?
- Are there long-term side effects I should be concerned about?
- Managing side effects of treatment to certain parts of the body
- Radiation therapy to the head and neck
- Radiation therapy to the brain
- Radiation therapy to the breast and chest
- Radiation therapy to the stomach and abdomen
- Radiation therapy to the pelvis
- Follow-up care
- To learn more
These are words that you may hear your health care team use.
Accelerated radiation: a radiation schedule in which the total dose is given over a shorter period of time. Compare to hyperfractionated radiation.
Adjuvant therapy (ad-juh-vunt): a treatment used in addition to the main (primary) treatment. Radiation therapy often is used as an adjuvant to surgery.
Alopecia (al-o-pee-shuh): hair loss, including face and body hair
Anesthesia (an-es-THEE-zhuh): loss of feeling, sensation, or consciousness caused by certain drugs or gases. Also used to describe the drug or gas used to cause this.
Anti-emetic (an-tee-ih-MEH-tik or an-tie-ih-MEH-tik): a drug to prevent or treat nausea or vomiting
Applicator (AP-lick-ate-ur): a device used to put an implant or medicine into the body
Benign tumor (be-nine too-mer): a tumor (lump or mass) that is not cancer
Biologic therapy (by-o-LA-jick): treatment that uses the immune system to fight infection and disease. Also called immunotherapy or immune therapy.
Biopsy (by-op-see): the removal of a sample or piece of tissue that is looked at under a microscope to see if it contains cancer or other abnormal cells
Brachytherapy (brake-ee-THER-uh-pee): internal radiation treatment done by putting radioactive material right into the tumor or close to it. Also called internal radiation therapy.
Cancer: a general term for more than 100 diseases that have uncontrolled, abnormal growth of cells that can spread into and destroy healthy tissues
Catheter (cath-ih-tur): a thin, flexible tube through which fluids or other materials can be put in or taken out of the body
Centigray (cGy) (sent-uh-gray): the preferred measurement of the amount of radiation dose absorbed by the body (1 cGy = 1 rad)
Chemotherapy (key-mo-THER-uh-pee): the use of certain types of drugs to treat cancer
Conformal radiation therapy (con-for-mul): a newer type of radiation treatment that uses a special computer to help shape the beam of radiation to match the shape of the tumor and delivers the beam from different directions rather than from one angle. This reduces the amount of radiation reaching nearby healthy tissues.
Dietitian (also registered dietitian): a health professional who plans well-balanced diet programs, including special diets to meet the needs of people with various medical conditions
Dosimetrist (doe-sim-uh-trist): a person who plans and calculates the proper radiation dose for each patient’s cancer treatment
Electron beam (ee-leck-tron): a stream of high-energy particles called electrons used to treat cancer
External radiation: radiation therapy that uses a machine located outside of the body to aim high-energy rays at cancer cells
Fractionated radiosurgery (frack-shun-ate-ed): see stereotactic radiosurgery
Fractionation (frack-shun-A-shun): dividing the total dose of radiation into smaller doses in order to reduce damage to healthy tissues
Fractions: the smaller, divided doses of radiation that are given each day
Gamma rays: high-energy rays that come from a radioactive element such as cobalt-60 or radium
Helical tomotherapy (he-lick-ul toe-moh-THER-uh-pee): a newer form of intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) in which the radiation is directed from a doughnut-shaped machine that spirals around the body
High-dose-rate (HDR) brachytherapy: a type of internal radiation in which the radioactive source is in place only for a short time and then removed. This may be repeated several times over a few days to weeks. See brachytherapy.
Hyperfractionated radiation (hi-per-FRACK-shun-ate-ed): a radiation schedule in which the radiation is given in smaller doses and more than once a day, but the overall length of treatment is the same. Compare to accelerated radiation.
Immune therapy: treatment that uses the immune system to fight infection and disease. Also called biologic therapy or immunotherapy.
Implant, radioactive: a small source or container of radioactive material placed in the body, either in or near a cancer. See brachytherapy.
Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) (in-ten-si-tee MOD-you-late-ed): an advanced method of conformal radiation therapy in which the beams are aimed from many directions and the intensity (strength) of the beams is controlled by computers. This allows more radiation to treat the tumor while reducing the radiation to healthy tissues. See conformal radiation therapy.
Internal radiation: a type of therapy in which a radioactive substance is put into or close to the area needing treatment. Also called brachytherapy.
Interstitial radiation (in-ter-STISH-uhl): a type of internal radiation in which a radioactive source (implant) is put right into the tissue (not in a body cavity)
Intracavitary radiation (in-truh-KAV-it-err-ee): a type of internal radiation in which a radioactive source (implant) is placed in a body cavity, such as the vagina, as opposed to right into a tumor. Compare to interstitial radiation.
Intraoperative radiation (in-truh-OP-er-uh-tiv): a type of external radiation therapy used to deliver a large dose of radiation to the tumor during surgery
Linear accelerator (lin-ee-uhr ak-SELL-er-a-ter): a machine that creates high-energy radiation to treat cancers using electricity to form a beam of fast-moving subatomic particles called photons (foe-tahns). Also called mega-voltage (MeV) linear accelerator or a linac.
Malignant (muh-lig-nunt): cancerous; a malignant tumor or mass of cells is called cancer
Medical oncologist (med-ih-kull on-kahl-uh-jist): a doctor who is specially trained in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and who specializes in the use of chemotherapy and other drugs to treat cancer
Medical social worker (also called clinical social worker): a mental health professional with a master’s degree in social work (MSW). A social worker can help people manage medical, psychological, social, and educational needs.
Metastasis (meh-tas-tuh-sis): the spread of cancer cells to distant areas of the body by way of the lymph system or bloodstream. Also used to describe the area to which cancer has spread. The plural is metastases.
Oncologist (on-kahl-uh-jist): a doctor who specializes in caring for people who have cancer
Oncology (on-kahl-uh-jee): the branch of medicine devoted to the diagnosis and treatment of cancer
Palliative care (pal-ee-uh-tiv): treatment intended to relieve symptoms caused by cancer, rather than cure cancer. Palliative care should be part of all phases of cancer treatment and can help people live more comfortably.
Physical therapist: a health professional who helps people use exercises and other methods to restore or maintain body strength, mobility, and function
Platelets (plate-lets): special blood cell fragments that help stop bleeding
Port (also radiation port or treatment field): the area of the body through which external beam radiation is directed to reach a tumor
Prosthesis (pros-thee-sis): an artificial replacement for a part of the body
Proton beam therapy (pro-tahn): a form of external radiation that uses proton beams to kill cancer cells. Protons are parts of atoms that cause little damage to tissues they pass through but are very good at killing cells at the end of their path.
Rad: short for “radiation absorbed dose;” an older term of measurement of the amount of radiation absorbed by the body (1 rad = 1 cGy). See centigray.
Radiation: in cancer treatment, energy carried by waves or a stream of particles. Types of radiation used to treat cancer include x-rays and gamma rays; electron, proton, neutron, alpha and beta particles. Radioactive substances include forms of cobalt, radium, iridium, cesium, iodine, strontium, samarium, phosphorus, and palladium.
Radiation oncologist: a doctor who specializes in using radiation to treat cancer
Radiation physicist: a person trained to ensure that the radiation machine delivers the right amount of radiation to the treatment area. This person works with the radiation oncologist and dosimetrist to design, plan, and calculate the proper dose for radiation treatment. See dosimetrist.
Radiation therapist: a person with special training to use the equipment that delivers radiation
Radiation therapy or radiation treatment: the use of high-energy rays or subatomic particles that travel into the body to kill cancer cells and treat tumors
Radiation therapy nurse: a registered nurse who has special training in cancer and radiation therapy
Radiologist: a doctor with special training in reading and interpreting x-rays and scans and doing special x-ray procedures
Radiopharmaceuticals (ray-dee-o-farm-uh-SUIT-ih-kulls): radioactive substances that are taken by mouth or injected into the body. They collect in the area of the tumor and help stop its growth.
Radio-resistance: the ability of cells to not be affected by radiation
Radio-sensitivity: how susceptible a cell is to radiation, or how easy it is for radiation to kill the cell. Cells that divide frequently are especially radiosensitive and are more affected by radiation.
Simulation: a process involving special x-ray pictures, which are used to plan radiation treatment so that the area to be treated is precisely located and marked
Stereotactic radiosurgery (steer-e-o-TACK-tick ray-dee-o-SUR-jer-ee): a type of radiation treatment that gives a large dose of radiation to a small tumor area, usually in one session. Though it’s called surgery, no knife or scalpel is used. The treatment may be useful for tumors that are in places where regular surgery would harm essential tissue, for example, in the brain or spinal cord, or when the patient’s condition does not permit regular surgery.
Systemic radiation: the use of radioactive materials like iodine 131 and strontium 89 to kill cancer cells. The materials may be taken by mouth or injected into the body. See radiopharmaceuticals.
Teletherapy (tell-uh-THER-up-ee): treatment in which the radiation source is at a distance from the body (external radiation)
Treatment field (or port): the place on the body at which the radiation beam is aimed
Tumor: an abnormal lump or mass of tissue. Tumors are either benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer).
Unsealed radiation: internal radiation therapy that is swallowed or given by injecting a radioactive substance into the bloodstream or a body cavity. This substance is not sealed in a container or implant.
White blood cells: the blood cells that help defend the body against infection
X-ray: a form of radiation that can be used either at low levels to make an picture of the inside of the body or at high levels to kill cancer cells
Last Medical Review: 01/24/2013
Last Revised: 01/24/2013