Radiation Therapy - FAQs

Baltimore Washington Medical Center

Linear accelerator for radiation therapyWhat is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high energy radiation to kill cancer cells. Radiation used in cancer treatment works very similarly to x-rays used to take pictures inside the body, except in much higher doses.

How does radiation work against cancer?

Radiation therapy causes damage to the DNA inside cancer cells to kill them or slow their growth. Radiation therapy can be used to cure, stop, or slow the growth of cancer, or to shrink tumors in order to reduce the symptoms that they may cause, such as pain, shortness of breath, or nerve damage.

How is radiation therapy given?

Radiation therapy can be given in multiple different ways. External beam radiation uses a machine that aims high energy x-rays at cancer cells in the body, generally in small amounts per day over a period of weeks. Internal radiation uses a type of radioactive implant that is placed in or near the cancer.

Can radiation therapy be combined with other types of cancer treatment?

Yes, radiation can be combined with other types of cancer treatment, including surgery, chemotherapy and hormonal therapy. The way that these treatments are coordinated depends on the specific type of cancer.

What does radiation therapy do to healthy cells in the body?

Radiation can affect normal cells in the body, so some side effects can occur. These side effects depend on the area of the body that is being treated. The normal tissues generally recover after the treatment is completed, but some side effects can be persistent. In order to minimize the chance that normal tissues will be affected by the treatment, doctors use sophisticated planning techniques to target the radiation as precisely as possible to the tumor, limit the dose of radiation that is received by the normal tissue, often give small doses of radiation each day spread out over a period of weeks, and sometimes administer medications along with radiation that can protect normal tissues.

How does radiation make you feel?

You cannot feel the radiation treatments when they are actually administered but there can be side effects. The side effects generally depend on what area of the body is being treated. They can include fatigue and/or skin irritation in the area being treated, dry mouth, sore throat, or problems swallowing if treatment is being given to the mouth or throat area, cough or phlegm if treatment is being given to the lung, or nausea if treatment is given in the abdominal area, or changes in bowel or bladder habits if the pelvic area is being treated. Most of these side effects gradually resolve within 4 to 6 weeks after treatment is completed, although some can persist.

Will I lose my hair?

Radiation can only cause hair loss in the area being treated, so patients only lose their hair if the head is in the area that is treated. Body hair may be lost on the skin overlying the area that needs to be treated.

Can I work and continue my regular activities during radiation treatment?

Many patients are able to work and continue their normal activities during their radiation treatments. Some patients work on limited schedules, and some patients do not work during their treatment. This will depend on the type and severity of side effects for each individual patient.

Have more questions about radiation therapy? Call the Tate Cancer Center at 410-553-8100.