Is Radiation Therapy Safe?

Radiation has been used successfully to treat patients for more than 100 years. In that time, many advances have been made to ensure that radiation therapy is safe and effective.

Doctors and Radiation Therapists carefully tailor treatments to make sure that they are safe and accurate. They plan treatments that focus on the cancer while avoiding healthy organs in the area. Plans and treatment equipment are carefully monitored and checked to make sure that treatments are given properly.

Some patients worry that radiation therapy will cause cancer years after treatment. There is a small risk that radiation can cause a new cancer to occur in the future, however, the goal is to kill the current tumor and doctors are reducing the chance of recurrences by preserving more healthy tissue during treatment.

What types of cancer are treated with radiotherapy?

Bladder, brain, breast, colorectal, gynecologic, head and neck, lymphoma, lung, prostate, and skin.

High energy x-rays destroy tumors by killing cancer cells, which are not able to repair themselves. Healthy cells can repair themselves after exposure, provided they don't receive too high a dose. Radiation will kill a tumor every time if sufficient dose can be delivered to the tumor itself, but oncologists are limited in the dose they can deliver because of the need to spare healthy surrounding tissue from over-exposure.

Will it make you radioactive?

No. The high energy x-rays used in external beam radiotherapy treatments switch on and off like a light-bulb. There is no residual radiation when the beam is turned off.

Will your hair fall out?

Hair loss is unlikely. Radiotherapy is a 'local' treatment, using beams directly focused on the targeted area so hair loss is unlikely except in cases when the beam is targeted at your scalp. When a cancer patient loses hair, it is usually due to chemotherapy and the hair usually grows back following the treatment.

Does radiotherapy hurt?

No. Most radiotherapy patients feel nothing during treatment. Over time, the skin in the treatment area may temporarily become dry, sore or itchy. This is often treated with local medications. With more precisely targeted forms of radiotherapy like 3-D conformal, IMRT, and IGRT, such side effects are minimized.

Are there other side effects?

Side effects depend upon the location of the tumor in the body and the type of cancer being treated. Doctors design treatments to minimize these complications. For breast cancer, doctors and radiographers target beams to protect the heart and lungs and to avoid skin reactions. For prostate cancer, treatments are designed to protect the rectum, bladder, urethra, and pelvic bones. With head and neck cancer, treatments are designed to protect the salivary glands, spinal cord, optic and audio nerves. With lung cancer, doctors are using advanced techniques to maximize the protection of healthy tissue.

What is IGRT?

IGRT (image-guided radiotherapy) involves using a variety of digital imaging techniques to pinpoint the exact location of a targeted tumor while the patient is in the treatment position, just prior to each daily treatment. It is the most advanced—and most precise—form of radiation therapy currently available. This precision is very important because tumors are not stationary. They can shift and move slightly between treatments, and even during treatments due to normal physiological processes, such as breathing. IGRT uses advanced imaging techniques to verify the patient's exact position and the tumor's precise location at the moment of treatment. IGRT is a radiotherapy treatment approach that utilizes multiple imaging and motion management techniques for ultra-accurate tumor targeting.

Why would I want IGRT to be used with my treatments?

Because it enhances radiotherapy treatment precision, IGRT allows physicians to escalate the radiation dose to cancer cells while keeping the dose to surrounding tissues as low as possible. This increases the chances of eradicating the tumor and minimizing treatment side effects.

Does radiation therapy expose people to radioactive substances?

Many people, when they hear the word "radiation," think immediately of radioactive substances. However, no radioactive substances are involved in the creation of X-rays or electrons by a medical linear accelerator. When a linear accelerator is switched "on," radiation is produced and aimed directly at cancer cells. Then, like a flashlight, when the machine is switched off, there is no more radiation—none is "stored" or "transported."

What is the IGRT process like?

The IGRT process is similar to a typical radiation treatment, except that it includes an additional imaging step just prior to each daily treatment. Typically, after conducting a physical exam and a medical history review, the radiation oncologist determines an individualized course of treatment for each patient.

Most cases require a treatment preparation session. Special molded devices that help the patient maintain the same position every day are sometimes developed at this point. Colored, semi-permanent ink may be used to mark the patient's skin, to assist in positioning the patient for treatment by aligning the radiation equipment with the targeted area. A special CT scan in the treatment position is sometimes taken, for use as a reference image later on in the process. The treatment preparation session might take from thirty minutes to an hour and the CT scan might take an additional 15-30 minutes.

Following the CT scan, the radiotherapy treatment planning process usually takes several days. When the plan is complete, the patient is given an appointment to begin radiation treatments.

The first treatment session is sometimes longer than subsequent ones so that additional X-ray films and checks can be done. A typical treatment session lasts about 15 minutes.

In the treatment room, the radiation therapist uses the marks on the patient's skin to locate the treatment area. The patient is positioned on a treatment table. Sometimes, special molded devices are used to help with rough positioning.

The radiation therapist leaves the treatment room and remotely controls a digital TheraView imaging system to fine-tune the patient's position and move the treatment couch into final position. The TheraView Imager rotates around the patient to take digital images of the targeted area. Usually two or more images are taken from different angles. A complete rotation of the machine may be used to generate a three-dimensional image. These images are then used to guide the final adjustments of the treatment couch.

Although the patient is alone in the treatment room, he or she can be seen on a television screen or through a window in the control room. The therapist can talk with the patient through an intercom. Patients do not see or hear the radiation and usually do not feel anything.

Who gives the treatment?

A doctor who has had special training in using radiation to treat disease--a radiation oncologist-prescribes the type and amount of treatment that best suits a particular patient’s needs.  The radiation oncologist works closely with other doctors and also heads a highly trained health care team. This team often includes: 1) a radiation physicist who participates in the planning process and ensures that the machines deliver the right dose of radiation, 2) a dosimetrist, who plans the treatment with the oncologist and the physicist, and 3)  a radiation therapist, who sets the patient up for treatment and runs the equipment that delivers the radiation.

How long is a course of treatment?

Radiation therapy usually is given five days a week for six or seven weeks. When radiation is used for palliative care, the course of treatment lasts for two to three weeks. For each radiation therapy session, the patient is in the treatment room for about 15 to 30 minutes. These types of schedules, which use small amounts of daily radiation rather than a few large doses, help protect normal body tissues in the treatment area. Weekend rest breaks allow normal cells to recover. The total dose of radiation and the number of treatments a patient needs depend on the size and location of the cancer, the type of tumor, the patient's general health and other factors.

What are the effects of treatment?

External radiation therapy does not cause a patient's body to become radioactive. Patients need not avoid being with other people because of treatment. Even hugging, kissing, or having sexual relations with others poses no risk to them of radiation exposure.

Side effects of radiation therapy most often are related to the area that is being treated. Most side effects that occur during radiation therapy, although unpleasant, are not serious and can be controlled with medication or diet. They usually go away within a few weeks after treatment ends. With Dynamic Targeting IGRT, side effects are minimized, and some patients have no side effects at all.

Is Radiation Therapy Treatment Expensive?

Treatment of cancer with radiation can be costly. It requires very complex equipment and the services of many health care professionals. The exact cost of your radiation therapy will depend on the type and number of treatments you need.

It's a good idea to talk with your insurer or with your doctor's office staff or the hospital business office about your policy and how expected costs will be paid.

Contact Us

Phone: 717-274-7500
Address: 845 Tuck St.
 Lebanon PA
Email: info@lvcancercenter.com