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Treatments and Technology

How does radiation therapy work?

Radiation therapy destroys cancer cells by directing a high-energy beam to the cancer site with minimal harm to the healthy cells. Radiation therapy is a very common treatment for cancer. It is important to remember that radiation does not affect cancer cells right away and is dependent on the type of tumor. It takes days or weeks of treatment before cancer cells deteriorate. Also, radiation continues to affect cancer cells after radiation treatments are complete. Radiation treatments are given daily, Monday-Friday, for a period of time prescribed by your doctor, the radiation oncologist.


What is treatment planning?

Because there are so many types of radiation and many ways to deliver it, treatment planning is a very important first step for every patient who will have radiation therapy. Before radiation therapy is given, the patient’s radiation therapy team determines the amount and type of radiation the patient will receive.

If the patient will have external radiation, the radiation oncologist uses a process called simulation to define where to aim the radiation. During simulation, the patient lies very still on an examining table while the radiation therapist performs a CT scan or other imaging study to help identify the target.

The areas to receive radiation are marked with a temporary or permanent marker, tiny dots or a “tattoo” showing where the radiation should be aimed. These marks are also used to determine the exact site of the initial treatments if the patient should need radiation treatment later.

Depending on the type of radiation treatment, the radiation therapist may make body molds or other devices that keep the patient from moving during treatment. These are usually made from foam or plastic. In some cases, the therapist may use shields that cannot be penetrated by radiation to protect organs and tissues near the treatment field.

When the simulation is complete, the radiation therapy team meets to decide how much radiation is needed and how it should be delivered. The radiation oncologist works with the team to determine how to deliver the radiation in the safest and most effective manner.

Who delivers my treatment?

A certified professional radiation therapist delivers the prescribed treatment and will help you before and after your treatments. Your doctor, also known as a radiation oncologist, specifies what is to be treated and for how long. This includes the amount of radiation you will receive each day and the total number of treatment days. Your doctor will also manage any medical problems that may develop during your treatment. In the Radiation Oncology Department, each patient under treatment has a scheduled appointment at least once a week with his or her radiation oncologist. If a problem occurs outside of this scheduled appointment time, arrangements can be made to meet with the doctor or a nurse who works with the doctor.

How long does each treatment take?

Radiation therapists, who are under the direction of your radiation oncologist, will be taking all the time necessary to ensure that you are accurately positioned for your treatment. The actual time when the radiation beam is “on” and therapy is delivers is only about a minute or two for each treatment field. Usually, patients are in and out of the department in less than 40 minutes. Our staff works to arrange the schedules to ensure that appointments are kept on time, but on some days, there may be delays because of unforeseen circumstances or emergencies.

Will I be able to drive to my radiation appointments?

Most people can get to daily treatments without help. If you are not feeling well, you may need to ask a family member or friend to take you to your treatment. Let us know if you are having problems with transportation as there are resources available through many cancer centers as well as through the American Cancer Society that may be able to help with your transportation needs.

What happens if I miss a treatment?

It is important that you receive your radiation treatments consistently, as scheduled. We strive to accommodate every patient’s schedule preference to the best of our ability. We do, however understand that sometimes treatments will be missed for various reasons and we hope that you will work with us to keep this at a minimum. If you need to miss a treatment you should call your respective department’s number and let us know as soon as possible. You should ask to speak to a radiation therapist, or the receptionist to reschedule. Ultimately, you will receive the number of prescribed treatments required by your radiation oncologist. In other words, your missed treatments will be added to the tail end of your therapy.

Will I have side effects from radiation therapy?

Yes, your radiation oncologist will discuss this with you individually. Radiation therapy is given to a specific area of the body. Both the cancer cells and other rapidly dividing cells in the area treated are affected. Healthy cells have the ability to recover over time while the cancer cells are permanently damaged. The effects on normal cells are the cause of side effects and are specific to the area of the body that is treated. These side effects will be monitored and managed as needed by the radiation therapy team.

Will I lose my hair?

You may lose hair in the area of your body that is receiving the radiation. For example, if you are receiving radiation on your leg, you will not lose the hair on your head due to the treatment.

Will my skin be burned?

Skin reactions can be a common side effect of radiation therapy. The skin reaction may look and feel like sunburn in the area being treated. The team responsible for your care will monitor these reactions closely.

How do I care for my skin in the affected area?

Your treatment team will give you specific instructions but general guidelines regarding skin care during and after treatment are outlined below:

After radiation therapy, your skin in the treatment area may look red, irritated, sunburned or tanned. After a few weeks, it may become dry or reddened from the therapy. It is important to call your doctor or nurse of any skin changes. They may have solutions to relive your discomfort and possibly minimize further irritation. Most skin reactions should go away a few weeks after treatment is finished. In some cases, the treated skin will remain darker than it was before. You need to be gentle with your skin. Suggestions include:

  • Use only lukewarm water and mild soap. Let water run over the treated area. Do not rub.
  • Do not wear tight clothing over the treatment area.
  • Try not to rub, scrub, or scratch any sensitive spots.
  • Avoid putting anything that is hot or cold, such as heating pads or ice packs, on your treated skin, unless advised by your doctor.
  • Do not use powders, creams, perfumes, deodorants, body oils, ointments, lotions, or home remedies in the treatment area while you are being treated and for several weeks afterward, unless approved by your doctor or nurse. Many skin products can leave a coating on the skin that may cause irritation, and some can interfere with penetration of radiation into the body and can even exacerbate your skin reaction during treatment.
  • Avoid exposing the area to the sun during treatment and for at least 1 year after your treatment is completed. If you expect to be in the sun for more than a few minutes, wear protective clothing and use a sunscreen. Ask your doctor or nurse about using sunscreen lotion.

Will I feel tired?

Fatigue is a very common side effect related to treatment. This effect may be exacerbated if systemic therapy is delivered with radiation. Your fatigue may continue for a few weeks after your treatment is over.

Will I be able to work during my treatments?

Most people are able to continue their regular activities during their treatment, but each person’s situation is very different. You and your physician will be able to determine what is best for you.

Will the treatments hurt while they are being given?

Individual radiation treatments are not painful, however the treatment table is firm and can be uncomfortable. Over time, however, you may experience side effects from your treatment. Before you begin treatment, your doctor will review with you the potential side effects that you may expect.

Will I be radioactive after receiving a treatment?

No. After treatment, you will not be radioactive. You can continue to enjoy the same contact with your family and friends as before your diagnosis without fear of exposing them to radiation.

What should I do about my current medications?

Tell your doctor and nurse if you are taking prescription or over-the-counter medicines. He or she will review your current medications and recommend whether they can be continued during your treatment.

Research and Awards

Radiation Oncology Consultants, Ltd. is composed of twenty four distinguished cancer specialists practicing compassionate cutting edge cancer care in the Chicagoland area. Our physicians have been recognized as Chicago's "Top Docs" and are ranked amongst top physicians in the country by U.S. News and World Report.





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