Frequently Asked Questions about Radiation Oncology


Frequently Asked Questions about Radiation Therapy

If radiation therapy is part of your cancer treatment plan, here are answers to some commonly asked questions.

How does radiation therapy work?

Radiation therapy is a treatment option in which a machine called a linear accelerator delivers high-energy X-ray beams that are precisely aimed to the tumor site in order to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors.

How is radiation therapy administered?

Radiation therapy is delivered both externally and internally. During external radiation therapy, a beam of radiation is directed at the tumor site from outside the body. Internal radiation therapy, also called brachytherapy, involves the placement of a radioactive source directly into or near the tumor site. This delivers radiation to a small area of the body and limits the dose to normal tissue.

Is radiation therapy painful?

Similar to an X-ray, you will not experience any pain during the delivery of the radiation treatment. Your skin may look red, irritated, or swollen after treatment, and could become dry, flaky, or itchy after a few weeks. Your cancer team can suggest ways to ease your skin sensitivity.

How is radiation therapy different from chemotherapy?

A radiation oncologist prescribes radiation therapy, which delivers a localized radiation beam specifically to the tumor site or body part. A medical oncologist prescribes chemotherapy, an invasive treatment delivered to the entire body that uses powerful chemicals to destroy cancer cells.

Will I experience side effects from the radiation?

While the goal of radiation therapy is to destroy cancer cells, it can also injure or destroy normal cells in surrounding organs and tissue. This may cause some unwanted side effects.

During treatment, your skim may be itchy, dry, heavy, or sore. It may also turn red (like sunburn), peel, darken, or develop a shine. Color changes will typically begin to fade about a month after treatment is complete.

Many of these side effects can be managed with medication. You will learn about the side-effect management and the proper use of skin care products approved by your doctor. Your team of doctors, nurses, and therapists will monitor you closely during treatment, and will review skin-care instructions.

Will my hair fall out?

Since radiation therapy treatments are considered “localized,” hair loss will only occur to the body part/area being treated.

Am I radioactive after my treatment?

No, you are not radioactive during or after your treatment course.

How long does it take to get radiation treatments?

The typical radiation therapy schedule is five days a week (Monday through Friday) for three to six weeks, depending on various factors such as type of surgery, lymph node involvement, and other patient or tumor features. Sometimes, radiation therapy can be delivered every other day over 10 days.

How long is a typical radiation therapy session?

Treatment can range from 15 to 20 minutes. Complex treatments such as Stereotactic Radiosurgery (SRS) or Stereotactic Body Radiotherapy (SBRT) may take longer than conventional radiotherapy treatments.

While in treatment, how often will I see my radiation oncologist?

Throughout your treatment course, you will meet with your doctor and nurse once a week. These visits are to assess and manage any side effects that may arise during your treatment.


Penn Medicine | Virtua Health
Radiation Oncology

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