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Radiation therapy is one of the most common treatments for cancer—it can be used to target cancer cells, relieve symptoms associated with cancer, or prevent cancer from returning. Radiation may be used alone or in combination with other treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, hormones, or targeted therapy. Your radiation oncologist is part of a team of cancer specialists that includes medical oncology, surgical oncology, reconstructive surgeons, pathologists, interventional radiologists, and genetic experts who will work together to create an individualized treatment plan for your specific needs.
What is Radiation Therapy?
Radiation therapy uses strong beams of energy to target specific sites of cancer while minimizing the effect on nearby organs and tissue. Cancer cells grow and divide faster than healthy cells; radiation therapy works by preventing cancer cells from growing and dividing and stops them from creating new cancer cells. While healthy cells near the cancer cells may be affected by radiation, they can recover. Radiation therapy is aimed directly at the part of the body that needs treatment to minimize the effect on healthy cells.
Radiation therapy can be given in multiple ways—external radiation directs high-energy rays into the tumor from outside of the body, while internal radiation, also called brachytherapy, places a radioactive source into the body near the tumor. Your cancer care team will determine which is the most appropriate and effective approach for your cancer.
Benefits of Radiation
The goals of radiation therapy are varied and depend on the patient and their cancer. Your physician may recommend radiation therapy for any of the below reasons:
- To cure or shrink your early-stage cancer
- To prevent cancer from coming back in other parts of the body
- To treat symptoms caused by advanced cancer
- To treat cancer that has returned
Common Radiation Terms
If you’re just beginning radiation therapy, you may be hearing new and unfamiliar terminology. While this can be overwhelming, you can and should always ask your care team to clarify anything you may not understand. Here are some terms you may hear:
- LINAC: This is a medical linear accelerator that customizes high energy rays to the shape of the tumor, allowing it to target cancer cells without affecting the surrounding healthy tissue.
- Fractions: Radiation therapy can be divided into several treatment sessions over multiple weeks, splitting doses into multiple ‘fractions.” This increases the effect on cancer cells without affecting healthy cells.
- Simulation: This is a practice run of your radiation therapy; you will not receive radiation during a simulation. Your team will identify the tumor location using imaging scans. They may place a mark on your skin to help aim the radiation beam at the tumor.
- Dosimetrist: This member of your care team helps your radiation oncologist determine the correct dose of radiation.
- Radiation Oncologist: This is a physician who specializes in using radiation therapy to treat cancer. They oversee your treatment and work closely with other treatment team members on your treatment plan.
- Radiation Oncology Nurse: Your nurse is there to answer any questions you may have during treatment, monitor your health, and help you manage any side effects.
- Radiation Therapist: This member of your team will operate the machines used in your radiation therapy and gives you your treatment.
- Physicist: A physicist specializing in cancer treatments will work with the radiation oncologist to plan each radiation treatment to ensure the right amount of radiation is delivered to the correct area of the body. They also help make any changes needed once the patient begins treatment.
What to Expect During Radiation Therapy
Every patient is different, and so is their cancer treatment. While your care team at Maryland Oncology Hematology can answer any questions you may have prior to beginning radiation therapy, here’s what you can generally expect as you begin treatment:
- Before you begin radiation therapy, your care team will plan your treatment with a simulation. You will lie on the imaging scanner in the same position you will be in during treatment. Your team may mark a spot on your skin to help aim the radiation beam.
- Treatment sessions are generally short, lasting only a few minutes. You will not feel the radiation during the treatment. As you receive the radiation, you will be monitored by your radiation therapist. The total number of treatments you receive will be determined by your care team.
- While it’s rare to notice side effects while radiation is being administered, you may experience side effects after treatment. Please talk to your physician about potential side effects for your specific treatment.
- During treatment, you can expect to regularly check in with your radiation oncologist and radiation oncology nurse to evaluate side effects and address any of your concerns.
- After treatment is completed, your physician will schedule follow-up appointments as needed.