Understanding Radiation Therapy

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Do the benefits 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 them 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 area 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 therapy 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 are the chances that radiation therapy will work?
  • What is 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 treatment involve? 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?

Last Medical Review: 01/24/2013
Last Revised: 01/24/2013