Radiation Oncology: What Happens There?
You’ve heard of family medicine and scheduled an appointment for your children with their pediatrician. You can rattle off a few things a cardiologist could do for you and your family. But if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, your oncologist may refer you to radiation oncology. So, what happens there?
Avera Medical Group Radiation Oncologists Michael Peterson, MD, of Yankton, and Stephen Dick, MD, MPH, of Mitchell, answer commonly asked questions about what you can expect during radiation treatments.
“Radiation oncology is the treatment of medical conditions, typically cancer, with ionizing radiation to either cure or improve the patient’s condition or quality of life,” said Peterson. Radiation oncology is utilized to treat practically any cancer — breast, lung, brain, prostate, rectal, lymphoma, kidney, bone and more.
For the most part, there are two types of radiation:
- External beam therapy – In the most common form of radiation, laser beams deliver high-dose radiation to the tumor from hundreds of angles, yet saving the surrounding healthy tissue.
- Brachytherapy – During brachytherapy, radioactive materials are placed into or near the affected tissue to kill cancer cells. While this approach is less common, it can be very useful to treat a number of cancers including prostate cancer and vaginal cancer.
What should I do to prepare for treatment?
Learn as much as possible about radiation oncology from your physician, medical journals and reputable online sources — pros and cons, side effects, expected results and things of that nature.
“Bring your findings into your appointment; the radiation oncologist will compare this information to your particular situation,” said Peterson.
Preparation also happens outside of the doctor’s office. Set up a feasible plan with your employer that takes into consideration your responsibilities at work. Most employers will be more than willing to accommodate your health care needs when both parties make thoughtful planning a priority.
How long does treatment last?
Treatment plans vary from patient to patient. An individual treatment session can last from just a few minutes to more than a half hour. As for how often and for how long you may need radiation, it can range from a single treatment all the way to five days a week for eight weeks.
What should I wear?
Comfortable street clothes work fine during your radiation session. Think zip-up sweatshirts, sweatpants or roomy T-shirts.
“Depending on where the machine needs access to your body, clothes should be easy to remove,” said Dick. Staff may offer a hospital gown or Dignity Robe to make this process simpler.
What do I hear during the radiation session?
For the most part, treatment is a noiseless experience. Yet, for your enjoyment, staff may play music from your favorite genre or artist while you receive treatment.
“I’ve heard everything from classical to country to hard rock; it’s whatever makes the experience more comfortable for you,” said Peterson.
What kind of side effects might I experience? Will you help me manage these symptoms?
“Side effects from radiation therapy depend on the part of the body that is being treated,” said Dick. A common symptom is fatigue. There may be hair loss if radiation therapy is directed to a part of the body that grows hair. Likewise, there may be nausea if the stomach or abdomen are treated.
“Sometimes, exposed skin during radiation may become irritated, resembling a sunburn,” Dick said. This “radiation sunburn” is acute dermatitis. Your skin may become red, feel tender to the touch, and peel. Talk to your physician if you discover any skin irritation. Steroid cream and various soaks are available to relieve itchy areas and tenderness.
You don’t have to live with radiation side effects, whether physical or emotional. Always speak up if something just doesn’t seem right or you’re feeling depressed or anxious.
One final note: If you are undergoing external beam radiation therapy, you will not become radioactive and your body will not pose a radiation hazard to loved ones around you.