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Radiation is the use of high-energy rays to damage cancer cells. Like surgery, it is a local treatment that only affects cancer cells in the treated area.  

  • Radiation rays damage cancer cells and stop them from growing and multiplying. Unlike healthy cells, cancer cells can’t repair themselves so damaged cancer cells die off.
  • Patients are not radioactive during or after the treatment. 

Radiation treatment is generally given over a period of weeks. 

Like any treatment, it is advisable to understand the benefits and risks before agreeing to radiation. 

There are two varieties of radiation therapy: external and internal. With external radiation, there is usually a planning session before therapy starts. This is a good time to learn what you need to know and to ask practical questions.

While side effects often occur during radiation therapy, there are steps to take to minimize their impact. For example, a cream can help heal the radiated area.

It is advisable to take a family member or friend with you at least to the radiation planning session for both emotional support and to help ask questions. It is also advisable to ask your doctor if it is okay to have sex during treatment. If not, speak with  your partner and explore other ways to have intimacy.

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Glossary of Radiation Terms

How Radiation Therapy Works

Radiation surrounds us all the time both from natural and manufactured sources such as light, cosmic rays, x-rays, radio waves and microwaves.

The radiation we are normally exposed to cannot penetrate below the skin.

When used for diagnostic purposes (for example, x-rays), low doses of radiation rays do penetrate into the body. 

When used for treatment purposes, a higher dose can damage or destroy cells in the path of the rays. Both normal and cancer cells are affected. Normal cells can heal themselves - just as skin heals after a burn from radiation from the sun. Cancer cells die off because they cannot heal themselves.

Radiation Professionals

Before or during radiation treatment, you may run into any of the following professionals who together make up the radiation team.

Dosimetrist: A member of the radiation oncology team who has knowledge of the overall characteristics and clinical relevance of radiation oncology treatment machines and equipment. A dosimetrist calculates the amount of time each treatment lasts. 

Radiation nurse: A nurse who is trained in radiation therapy. A radiation nurse coordinates treatments and answers patient's questions.

Radiation oncologist: A doctor with specialized training in treating cancer with radiation. 

Radiation physicist: The person who oversees the functioning of the radiation equipment.

Radiation technologist: The person who positions you with respect to the machine, and actually administers the treatment.

How To Choose A Radiation Oncologist

When looking for a cancer doctor who specialisizes in radiation treatment, consider the following:

  • Look for a doctor who is board certified in radiation oncology. Also look at the institution or institutions the doctor is affiliated with. The better the institution, the higher the standards which are applied to the professionals who are allowed to be affiliated with the institution.
  • Look at the treatment facility. 
    • The technology available to treat you can vary greatly from one facility to another. 
    • Travel time to the facility becomes important because treatment is likely to be daily over a period of weeks.
  • If you have health insurance, do the doctor and the facility accept it? If not, is there a less expensive doctor with the right qualifications who works in an acceptable facility that costs less?

Effect On Daily Life And Work

Radiation treatment affects daily life and work in tin the following ways:

  • Time
    • Time getting to and from and while in the treatment center
    • Time keeping the affected area clean and moist
  • Fatigue.
    • Fatigue can slow you down or even make you unable to work for periods of time of varying length.
    • Fatigue tends to be cumulative. It can get worse as treatment progresses.
    • To learn about fatigue, and how to cope with it, click here.
  • Pregnacy
    • It is generally not advisable to be pregnant during radiation treatment. If you are pregnant, inform your doctor immediatel.
  • Sex
    • Your doctor may suggest that you do not have sex during radiation treatment. If so, speak with your partner - and consider ideas for continuing intimacy.

For information about a serious health condition and work, in general, click here.