What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that kills cancer cells by using intense energy beams through x-rays, protons or other types of energy. Radiation therapy works by destroying genetic material in the cells that enable them to grow and divide. Although some healthy cells are damaged in radiation therapy, the goal is to minimize impact to healthy cells - healthy cells can often repair themselves after radiation damage.

External beam radiation therapy is the most common type of radiation therapy.

During external beam radiation therapy, high-energy beams (from an external machine) target a precise area on your body to kill the cancerous cells.

Another type of radiation therapy is brachytherapy, where radiation is placed directly on cancerous cells to kill them.

Who is a candidate for radiation therapy?

Although some patients have radiation therapy alone as their cancer treatment, most cancer patients have radiation therapy as a part of their treatment protocol. Radiation therapy is effective on almost every type of cancer.

Radiation therapy can be used:

  • To shrink a malignant tumor before surgery
  • To stop the growth and spread of cancer cells that were left after surgery
  • With other cancer treatments such as chemotherapy
  • To alleviate symptoms in advanced cancer patients
  • To destroy benign tumors

What are the side effects associated with radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is aimed at the cancerous tumor, so it typically only affects the area of the body where the therapy was targeted.

Common side effects of radiation therapy include:

  • Skin problems — including dryness, itching, blistering and peeling. In most cases, skin problems can be relieved within a few weeks after your treatment ends.
  • Extreme fatigue — if you are having multiple treatments at once time, your fatigue may be intensified.
  • Developing another cancer — in rare cases, you could develop a secondary cancer because of radiation therapy years after your initial treatment

Side effects by body part may include:

  • Head and neck — tooth decay, inability to taste food, nausea, difficulty swallowing, stiffness in the jaw or lymphedema
  • Chest — cough, shortness of breath, breast or nipple soreness, fever or radiation fibrosis
  • Abdomen — diarrhea, vomiting and nausea
  • Pelvis — diarrhea, incontinence, sexual dysfunction, rectal bleeding or bladder irritation

What to expect during radiation therapy?

A linear accelerator machine is used during external beam radiation. The linear accelerator delivers high-energy beams of radiation targeted directly at the tumor.

During the therapy, you will lie on a table, while the machine moves around your body to deliver a precise dose of radiation directly to the tumor from different angles.

Most patients will receive external beam radiation five days a week over a specified period. Your doctor will determine the most appropriate timing for your case. External beam radiation is performed on an outpatient basis - each treatment is approximately 30 minutes long.

If you have advanced cancer, your doctor may recommend a single treatment.

Results from radiation therapy

Results vary from person to person. Some people will have a full recovery, while others will not respond to treatment. Your oncology care team will evaluate your case to determine if they need to change your treatment protocol if radiation therapy is not working for you.

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