Radiation 101: What to Expect

September 14, 2021
Radiation 101: What to Expect

Reviewed for medical accuracy by Dr. Victoria Croog.

Radiation therapy is one of the most common treatments used for cancer. Despite this, many of us don’t know the full story on radiation treatment, nor on radiation therapy side effects. Whether you are a first-time cancer patient looking for more information on what to expect, or a cancer supporter wondering what to put in a radiation care package, this piece will provide a first look at everything relating to radiation treatment.

What is Radiation Therapy?

To understand radiation therapy, you need to understand the causes of cancer. Our body is made up of a number of cells that, as part of the natural operation of your body, will grow and divide to form new cells. Sometimes, however, a mutation will cause cells to not respond to the proper signals for growth and natural death. These cells can grow out of control, ignoring your body’s attempts to stop the growth, and may eventually turn into a tumor. 


These cancerous cells will start to “outperform” regular healthy cells and it can be hard for your body to deal with them on its own. This is where radiation treatment comes in. Radiation can be damaging to cells. The idea of radiation treatment is to target the cancerous cells and break down their DNA. The cancerous cell will hopefully be destroyed, and then processed out of the body.


As opposed to chemotherapy that is trying to impact the whole body, radiation is used as a local therapy to focus the cancer-fighting effect at a certain area within the body.

How Effective is Radiation Therapy?

In the modern-day, radiation treatment is able to be delivered in a more precise and reproducible manner that makes it overall a more safe and attractive treatment modality. Radiation can be a highly effective method of combating cancer. 


It is estimated that 40% of cancer cures worldwide can be attributed to the use of radiation treatment. Radiation may be effective as a curative treatment when the cancer is still localized to a single part of the body. Radiation may also be effective as a palliative treatment for pain, bleeding, or other symptoms of tumor destruction in situations where the tumor has spread to other parts of the body.

What Are the Types of Radiation Therapy?

When it comes to radiation treatment, there are two main types - external beam radiation therapy and internal radiation therapy. In external beam radiation therapy, a machine will aim bursts of radiation at the part of your body where the cancer is located. These large machines can reposition around your body, administering the radiation only where it is needed. 


Most external beam radiation is delivered with photons, or beams similar to X-rays. The photon beam can be shaped and conformed to a specific target. Another form of external beam radiation uses proton particles instead of photon beams. Proton particles may be helpful in certain scenarios to reduce the chance of damage to non-target normal tissues and, therefore, reduce the likelihood of side effects. 


Internal radiation therapy involves placing a source of radiation inside the body directly at the target tissue. This allows radiation to go right to the source of the problem without having to traverse through other tissues or organs. However, doing this type of radiation involves a more invasive delivery approach as opposed to lying on a table for external beam radiation. . 


Sometimes radioactive substances can be inserted into the body through an IV or an injection in a liquid form. This kind of radiation treatment is used in an attempt to combat cancer cells across a wider area.

What Happens in Radiation Therapy?

It’s important to note that with these different kinds of radiation treatment, radiation therapy, and radiation therapy side effects, can differ greatly from patient to patient. Before you can begin radiation treatment, your medical team will walk you through the planning stage. 


Planning might include taking scans of your body to determine the best way to administer the radiation, marking your body to help record where the radiation should be administered, and helping you get comfortable. You will also need to have a fitting session for a mold to fit your body in particular, and this may involve getting a small a tattoo that will help  lineup the treatment properly. You can ask about tattoos that are only visible with UV light. You can also get a tattoo to cover it up that looks like a freckle or have it lasered off when treatment is complete.


With external beam radiation, you can expect to be lying still on a hard table while a large machine moves around you. This process will not be painful; however, you should make sure you are in a comfortable position that you can remain in for up to 30 minutes. Most courses of radiation involve a daily treatment on weekdays.  While the actual administration of radiation won’t take very long (a few minutes), there is a process to ensure proper, accurate set up on the machine that makes the whole process longer (usually between 15-30 minutes for each treatment). 

What Are the Side Effects of Radiation Therapy?

Radiation therapy side effects will vary immensely depending on the kind of therapy, the area being treated, and how much radiation is used. The more severe the cancer, the more intensive the radiation treatment and the more pronounced the side effects.


Radiation therapy is aiming to destroy only cancerous cells, but it is inevitable that some healthy cells will be destroyed as well. This can result in various forms of damage to the normal tissues. Common side effects (depending on the area, type, and dose of radiation) may include skin changes (darkening, mild sunburn, rash, dryness, blistering, hair loss), mucosal changes (sores, blisters, erosions), deeper tissue changes (edema or swelling, tightness, or scar tissue formation), and fatigue (due to an inflammatory reaction in your body). 


It is always best to speak with your radiation oncologist about what specific side effects you can expect, and how long it will take for them to manifest. If you are worried about a specific side effect, you can make sure to prepare a radiation care package with something to help - for example, looser clothing can help prevent aggravating skin damage caused by radiation treatment. We have a number of amazing “patient approved” skin creams designed for radiation affected skin.  Shop our skincare collections here.  

Need a Radiation Care Package?

At OneVillage, we are dedicated to providing cancer patients and their supporters with the goods, services, and information they need for their fight against cancer. If you need help organizing radiation care packages for yourself or a loved one, don’t hesitate to contact us.

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