What to Expect When Having Radiation Therapy

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2018

It is normal to feel worried or overwhelmed when you learn that you will need radiation therapy. The information in this article can help you prepare for your first treatment.

Your radiation therapy team

A highly trained medical team will work together to provide you with the best possible care. This team may include the following health care professionals:

Radiation oncologist. This type of doctor specializes in giving radiation therapy to treat cancer. A radiation oncologist oversees radiation therapy treatments. He or she works closely with other team members to develop the treatment plan.

Radiation oncology nurse. This nurse specializes in caring for people receiving radiation therapy. A radiation oncology nurse plays many roles, including:

  • Answering questions about treatments

  • Monitoring your health during treatment

  • Helping you manage potential side effects

Medical radiation physicist. This professional has expertise in radiation equipment. He or she helps design treatment plans.

Dosimetrist. This professional helps the radiation oncologist calculate the right dose of radiation.

Radiation therapist or radiation therapy technologist. This professional operates the treatment machines and gives people their scheduled treatments.

Other health care professionals. Additional team members may help care for physical, emotional, and social needs during treatment. These professionals include:

  • Social workers

  • Nutritionists or dietitians

  • Physical therapists

  • Dentists

Learn more about the oncology team.

Before treatment

You can expect these steps before beginning treatment:

Meeting with your radiation oncologist. The doctor will review your medical records, perform a physical exam, and recommend tests. You will also learn about the potential risks and benefits of radiation therapy. This is your opportunity to ask questions.

Giving permission for radiation therapy. If you choose to receive radiation therapy, your health care team will ask you to sign an informed consent form. Signing the document means:

  • Your team gave you information about your treatment options.

  • You choose to have radiation therapy.

  • You give permission for caregivers to deliver the treatment.

  • You understand the treatment is not guaranteed to give the intended results.

Simulating and planning treatment. The first radiation therapy session is a simulation. This is a practice run without giving radiation therapy. Your team will use imaging scans to identify the tumor location. These may include:

Depending on the area being treated, you may receive a small mark on your skin. This will help your team aim the radiation beam at the tumor.

You may also be fitted for an immobilization device. This could include using:

  • Tape

  • Foam sponges

  • Headrests

  • Molds

  • Plaster casts

These items help you stay in the same position throughout treatment.

For radiation therapy to the head or neck, you may receive a thermoplastic mask. This is a mesh mask that is molded to your face and secured to the table. It gently holds your head in place.

Your radiation oncology team cares about your comfort. Talk with the team to find a comfortable and reproducible position for treatment. And tell them if you experience anxiety lying still in an immobilization device. Your doctor can prescribe medication to help you relax.

After the simulation, your team will review your information and design a treatment plan. Computer software helps the team develop the plan.

During treatment

External-beam radiation therapy

External-beam radiation therapy delivers radiation from a machine outside the body.

Each session is quick and painless, lasting about 15 minutes. Typically, people have treatment sessions 5 times per week, Monday through Friday. This schedule continues for 3 to 9 weeks.

This type of radiation therapy targets only the tumor. But it will affect some healthy tissue surrounding the tumor. The 2-day pause in treatment each week allows your body to repair this damage.

Internal radiation therapy

Internal radiation therapy is also called brachytherapy. This includes both temporary and permanent placement of radioactive sources in the tumor site.

Typically, you will have repeated treatments across a number of days and weeks. These treatments may require a brief hospital stay.

You may need anesthesia to block the awareness of pain while the radioactive sources are placed in the body.

Most people feel little to no discomfort during treatment. But some may experience weakness or nausea from the anesthesia.

You will need to take precautions to protect others from radiation exposure. The need for such precautions ends when:

  • The permanent implant loses it radioactivity

  • The temporary implant is removed

Weekly reports

During treatment, your radiation oncologist will check how well it is working. Typically, this will happen at least once a week. If needed, he or she may adjust your treatment plan.

Personal care

Many people experience the following during treatment:

  • Fatigue

  • Sensitive skin at the site of radiation exposure

  • Emotional distress

Consider these ways to care for yourself:

  • Plan for extra rest.

  • Eat a healthy diet.

  • Seek emotional support.

  • Treat skin with lotions approved by your health care team.

  • Minimize exposure to the sun.

Learn more about coping during treatment.

After treatment

Once treatment ends, you will have follow-up appointments with the radiation oncologist. This involves:

  • Checking on your recovery

  • Watching for treatment side effects, which may not happen right away

As your body heals, you will need fewer follow-up visits.

Ask your doctor for a written record of your treatment. This is a helpful resource as you manage your long-term health care.

Related Resources

Understanding Radiation Therapy

Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

ASCO Survivorship Cancer Treatment and Survivorship Care Plans

More Information

RT Answers: What to Expect

ASCO answers; Radiation TherapyDownload ASCO's free Radiation Therapy fact sheet. This 1-page printable PDF gives an introduction to radiation therapy, including an overview of the different types of radiation, what to expect during treatment, possible side effects, terms to know, and questions to ask the health care team. Order printed copies of this fact sheet from the ASCO Store.