Your Guide to Radiation Treatment for Cancer

Frequently Asked Questions


Q: For what types of cancer is radiotherapy used? What can radiosurgery treat?

A: Radiotherapy is used to treat a variety of tumors, including cancers of the brain, breast, cervix, larynx, lung, pancreas, prostate, skin, spine, stomach, throat/neck, uterus, and soft-tissue sarcomas. Radiosurgery is generally used for tumors of the central nervous system which include tumors of the brain and spine. Stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) is most often used to treat other areas including the prostate, lungs, liver, pancreas or kidneys. Clinicians continue to research whether radiosurgery is appropriate for other types of cancer. Radiotherapy and radiosurgery is not right for all people or all tumors, and only your healthcare team can determine if it is right for you. It is important to discuss with your healthcare team all treatment options, including whether radiotherapy or radiosurgery is an appropriate option for you.


Q: Is radiation treatment used only to treat tumors?

A: No. In situations where it is not possible to completely eliminate the cancer, radiotherapy therapy can be used to shrink the tumor, with the goal of reducing pain, pressure and other symptoms in order to improve the patient’s quality of life. When radiation is used in this way, it is called palliative radiation therapy.


Q: What are the side effects of radiation treatments?

A: Side effects vary from patient to patient. Many side effects can be cumulative, which is to say they develop over the course of treatment as the radiation accumulates in the tumor. They can be minor or severe, depending on the size and location of the tumor and your general medical condition. Two of the most common side effects of radiation treatments are irritation or damage to the skin near the treatment site, and fatigue. Serious side effects are treatment site specific and can include diarrhea, nausea, swelling at the treatment site, lymphedema and secondary cancer. You can ask your team about what side effects you may expect during your specific treatment.


Q: Will I experience any pain during or after treatment?

A: You will not feel the radiation beam as it works, nor will you be able to see it. You may hear some low-level sounds as the linear accelerator rotates around you or as the beam-shaping MLC moves. If you have trouble remaining still during treatment, you may, at times, feel discomfort. However, your clinical team will work with you to make you as comfortable as possible.

After treatment, side effects can be minor or severe, depending on the size and location of the tumor and your general medical condition. Two of the most common side effects of radiation treatments are irritation or damage to the skin near the treatment site, and fatigue. There may be pain in the mouth or pharynx with head and neck treatment. Serious side effects are treatment site specific and can include diarrhea, nausea, swelling at the treatment site, lymphedema and secondary cancer.


Q: How will radiotherapy or radiosurgery affect my daily routine?

A: Many patients are able to continue most of their usual activities during treatment, including work and mild exercise. However, your energy level may decrease toward the end of your treatment course. If so, you should allow yourself the extra rest you need. Fatigue typically subsides within weeks after treatment ends. Again, it is important that you consult with your doctor and healthcare team about the type of activities and exercise you may continue during your radiotherapy.


Q: Will I be able to drive after my radiation treatments?

A: Many patients are able to drive during their course of treatment and, in many cases, are able to continue normal daily activities, including work. You should, however, ask your doctor about your individual situation and the type of activities you can do during your treatment.


Q: Does radiation treatment cause hair loss?

A: Radiation treatment can cause temporary hair loss, but only in the area being treated. You should not lose your hair unless your treatment targets a part of the body that grows hair, such as your scalp. The amount of hair that grows back depends on the intensity of the radiation you receive.


Q: Will radiation treatment make me nauseous?

A: Generally, radiation treatment affects
only those areas being treated, so if you are not receiving radiation to your abdomen, it is unlikely that you will experience nausea as a result of treatment. In some cases, a patient’s nausea is caused by other aspects of his or her treatment, such as chemotherapy or pain medication.


Q: Will radiation treatments make me radioactive?

A: External-beam radiation treatment—where the source of the radiation is a machine outside your body—will not make you radioactive. After the radiation is delivered, there is no lingering radiation.