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Radiotherapy Physics - FAQ

Article Index


How does radiation therapy work?

The purpose of radiation therapy is to kill cancer cells. Radiation affects all rapidly dividing cells, both normal and abnormal. Treatment is designed to maximise the radiation dose to tumour cells while minimising harmful effects to normal tissue. Normal cells have a greater ability to repair themselves than do cancer cells. Because it is impossible to shield all normal tissue, some side effects may occur. Your doctor and nurse will discuss the specific side effects with you.


Am I radioactive?

No, you are not radioactive and you will not be a danger to anyone during (unless with an implant) or after your course of radiation therapy.


Will I feel the radiation?

Similar to having a routine X-ray, there is no sensation from the radiation.


Will I lose my hair?

You will lose hair only in the area that is receiving radiation therapy. The hair on your head will not be affected unless you are receiving therapy to your head. This loss usually is not permanent. Be sure to ask your doctor or primary nurse any additional questions about hair loss.


Will my skin be burned?

Skin reactions are a common side effect of radiation therapy. The skin within the treatment area may look and feel like sunburn. You may experience dryness, irritation, tanning or peeling. These conditions are temporary and will heal after treatments are completed. Your nurse will review with you how to care for your skin during and after your course of radiation treatments.


Will I feel tired?

You may tire easily during your course of radiation therapy and need to rest more often. The degree of fatigue varies widely from patient to patient and may persist for a few weeks after completion of treatment. If you have questions ask your nurse or doctor.


Can radiation therapy cause another cancer?

Patients who have one cancer have an increased risk of having a second cancer later. It does not matter how their first tumour was treated. The risk of developing a second minor because of radiation therapy is very low.


Why does radiation therapy take so long?

Normal cells are able to repair DNA damage far better after small doses of radiation than after large doses. In fact, experience with many thousands of patients treated over many decades has shown us that we can minimise side effects by dividing a large total dose of radiation into many smaller daily doses delivered over several weeks rather than giving a few massive doses in several days. Between each of your daily doses, the normal cells are repairing their damaged DNA. This results in fewer side effects. Although it seems very inconvenient to give treatment over such a long period of time, this is the only way to deliver enough total radiation to permanently destroy your cancer without also permanently hurting normal tissues.


Can I Miss a Treatment?

Unless a treatment break is prescribed by your doctor, it is preferable to receive all of your radiation therapy treatments in sequence. Occasionally, because of machine malfunction, a treatment may be canceled. In this case a make-up treatment will be added at the end of your originally scheduled course. The same is true if you cannot come in for a scheduled treatment. Please notify the nurse and/or technologist by telephone if you have to miss an appointment.


Can I receive radiation treatments more than once?

Generally a patient can receive radiation therapy to a given area only once. This is because further radiation therapy to that same area might cause unacceptable side effects or permanent damage.Occasionally, if the radiation tolerance has not been exceeded, someone can receive more radiation even to an area that was already treated. Because the effects of radiation are local, most patients can receive radiation to another part of the body just as if they had no previous radiation.


How does taking radiation and chemotherapy at the same time affect my body?

For certain types of cancer, a combination of radiation and chemotherapy are more effective than either one alone. Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment which is acting on the whole body as it travels through the bloodstream. When it is given at the same time as radiation, it often increases the effect of radiation on cancer cells. Unfortunately, sometimes there is also an increase in side effects when both treatments are given together. The exact type of chemotherapy used depends on what kind of cancer is being treated.


What are clinical trials?

Radiation oncologists, physicists and others continue to explore new ways to treat the cancer patient effectively with radiation and radioactive sources. The practice of radiation oncology continues to grow and change. Cancer specialists are conducting studies now to determine what treatment is best for each cancer patient. These studies are called "clinical trials" or "treatment protocols." Most large clinical trials compare standard treatment to a treatment that cancer experts think might be better. All patients who participate in clinical trials are carefully monitored to make sure they are getting quality care.Cancer patients should talk to their doctor about clinical trials before they choose treatment.


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