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Questions to Ask Before Deciding About Radiation Treatment

External Radiation

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Following are sample questions to consider asking about External Radiation treatment:

  • What is radiation therapy?
  • Why do I need this treatment?
  • What is the goal of the treatment?
    • What are the chances we will achieve the goal?
    • If the goal is to eliminate the cancer, what are the chances that this treatment will prevent the cancer from coming back?
  • Please describe the treatment in terms I can understand. (Ask that visual aides be used if necessary)
    • Please walk me through what to expect initially, and then during subsequent sessions. 
    • Will each treatment session be the same? (Does the radiation dose or the area being treated change throughout the period of the treatment?)
    • Will a temporary or permanent type marker will be used to identify the area to be treated? 
      • If permanent, what will it look like?
      • If temporary, what will I need to do to make sure it doesn't disappear? (For example, when you shower.)
  • The sessions:
    • When do they start?
    • How many will be scheduled? 
    • How often will I receive radiation therapy?
    • When do the sessions end?
    • What are the chances I will need more sessions?
    • How much time will each session take?
    • Can I set a time convenient to my schedule?
    • Can I wear my own clothes? 
    • What can I do to get ready for this treatment?
    • Is there anything I should do, or not do, before sessions? After?
  • What should I do during treatment?
    • Exercise?
    • Change my diet to add or avoid certain foods?
    • Take vitamins? Supplements?
    • Avoid using deodorant or antiperspirant during treatment?
    • Engage in complementary therapy such as massage
  • How will we know if the treatments are working? When will we know?
  • What are the alternatives to the proposed radiation treatment?
  • What are the possible risks involved in undergoing the proposed radiation treatment?
  • Will the treatment prevent me from getting any other treatments in the future?
  • How would you describe what I will experience when I receive radiation therapy?  Will it hurt or cause me discomfort during the treatment?
  • How will this treatment affect my daily life? 
  • How will this treatment affect my work?
    • Will I be able to work?
    • If so, how will my work be affected?
    • Will that change over time?
    • What can we do to minimize the effect on work? For instance, can we schedule treatments for before or after work?
    • Will you be available to speak with my supervisor if it would help me?
  • What are the short term side effects?
    • Will my skin be affected? If so, what products do you recommend for treatment?  (For general information about skin changes from treatment and what to do about them, click here.)
    • Are there other short term side effects? If so, what can I do to ease them? (To learn about common side effects and what to do about them, click here.)
  • Do I need to be concerned about sun exposure? If so, what steps do you recommend?
  • What are the possible long term side effects of this treatment?
    • What can I do to prevent or minimize them?
    • Will this treatment affect my ability to have a child? If so, is there time to preserve my ability to have a child? (For information, click here.)
  • Do you use a checklist of steps to take for the safe delivery of the radiation treatment?  
  • When was the last time the radiation equipment was certified? By what agency?
  • What if I miss a treatment?
  • If I take this treatment, will there be other treatments I will not be able to take in the future?
  • If I need help getting to and from treatment, who should I speak with about getting help?
  • Can I arrange to be treated somewhere else if I travel? (To learn how to travel safely during treatment, see Travel 101).
  • Are there special services for patients receiving radiation therapy, such as certain parking spaces or parking rates?
  • In what situation(s) should I call the doctor or go to the emergency room? For example, if I get skin blisters? 
  • If your insurance is an HMO or other type of managed care policy, is the doctor restricted in the treatments that he or she may prescribe? If so, how does that affect your situation? Is the doctor prevented from telling you about other treatments?
If you are a member of an HMO or other managed care health insurance plan, ask:
  • Does the insurer provide financial incentives for doctors to use a preferred treatment?
  • Is the doctor prohibited from informing you about treatment options other than the one or ones approved by the managed care company? This is a practice known as "gagging."  Gagging is supposed to be a thing of the past. However, it is still worth confirming that you have been advised of all of your treatment options.
  • Does the plan limit your doctor's choice to order treatments and make referrals if a patient's needs go beyond the plan's protocols?


  • If you have difficulty getting the doctor to answer your questions, see the video, Talking With Your Doctor, and/or read How To Work Most Effectively With Your Doctor.
  • If the doctor doesn't have time to answer all your questions when you are together, ask what is the best way to ask your additional questions. The doctor may set another appointment or suggest you send them by e mail or perhaps speak with another doctor or nurse in his or her practice.
  • For information about dealing with the stress of waiting for a procedure, click here.

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