What is radiotherapy used for?
Radiotherapy is one of the most common treatments for cancer and is used either alone or in combination with other treatments. Depending on the type of cancer and where it is located, radiotherapy may be aimed at curing the disease or be used to relieve or prevent symptoms. Occasionally, radiotherapy is used to treat non-malignant tumours and conditions.
Is radiotherapy safe?
Radiotherapy is a highly controlled and safe treatment delivered by a specialist team including Clinical Oncologists (doctors), Radiation Oncology Medical Physicists and Therapeutic Radiographers. Robust national and international standards must be applied in the delivery of treatment which is closely monitored and regulated. This, as well as the strict and numerous quality assurance processes at all steps of the planning and treatment phases, ensure that radiotherapy is a very safe treatment option
To ensure errors are a rare occurrence, equipment is frequently calibrated (adjusted) to confirm correct functioning and both manual and computerised checks are undertaken by several team members before every treatment.
Radiation oncology is a discipline in medicine that is renowned for its ongoing world-class education and training programs. All these measures contribute to the quality and safety of treatment delivery.
If you have any particular concerns in this regard, you should mention these to the radiation oncology team so they can allay your fears.
What are the side effects of radiotherapy treatment?
These depend on many factors for example, what part of the body is being treated, each individual receiving treatment, the amount of radiation dose being prescribed, what type of radiotherapy (internal/ external, photons/electrons/protons). Some experience side effects early on and others not until the end of their course or even after it has finished. The side effects will be discussed in detail by the treatment team but these are a guide, patients’ may experience, some, all or none, we are all different.
What causes side effects of radiotherapy treatment?
Side effects occur when healthy tissue is damaged by the radiation, this causes local inflammation, the body’s defence reaction. When targeting diseased / tumour cells it is impossible not to cause some damage to surrounding healthy tissue at the same time, but this is minimal.
Does radiotherapy treatment hurt?
Treatment delivery itself is not painful, there is nothing to see or feel during the treatment. It’s very similar to having an X-Ray or CT scan taken. However, some patients may get pain and discomfort from the side effects of the treatment but this is patient specific, your treatment team will discuss any side effects with you.
How long does radiotherapy treatment take?
Treatments usually last around 10-60 minutes, the length of the treatment will depend on the body area to be treated and the type and the complexity of the treatment.
Can I miss a treatment?
For external beam radiotherapy, courses of treatment work through the delivery of small regular, usually daily, treatments. Generally, no treatments are scheduled for weekends. To ensure the optimal effect, it is important that once started, radiotherapy treatments are not delayed or missed, unless there are exceptional circumstances. Sometimes there are valid medical reasons for the treatment to be missed or deferred and the Radiation Oncologist will discuss these with you.
How will radiotherapy treatment affect my day-to-day life?
Treatment can cause specific side effects depending on the area of the body being treated these will be discussed with the patient individually. Treatment can also cause tiredness, and this is irrespective of site so patients may find they need more time to do everyday things. It is good for your well-being if you can continue regular routines and life as normal.
Can I have radiotherapy more than once?
In general, high doses of radiotherapy prevent further treatment from being safely given to the exact same region of the body. However, in the same person, radiotherapy is often used to treat different parts in the body, such as for bone pain occurring at different sites. However, there are certain situations where radiotherapy can be given to the same area with good effect, safely.
Should I take medications and/or vitamins while receiving treatment?
Usual prescription medications should be continued as normal through radiotherapy. Many people with a cancer diagnosis take some type of extra non-prescription complementary therapy, vitamins or supplements. It is a good idea to discuss these with your doctor if he/she doesn’t specifically ask because it may be recommended that one or more of these medications are not taken during the course of radiotherapy. An example is antioxidants as they may interfere reduce the effectiveness of radiation on the cancer cells
Can my friends and family come with me?
Pre-covid: You should assume that friends and family can attend with you for any consultations as well as treatment, any support is usually welcome. However, they will probably not be able to come into the room where the actual radiotherapy treatment is delivered.
Post-covid: Please check with your individual treatment centre as to what their local guidance is as this continues to change.
What kind of clothes should I wear?
You should wear anything you feel comfortable in but please bear in mind that any clothes that cover the area that is to be treated will need to be removed.
Will I be radioactive?
Patients having the most common type of radiotherapy External Beam Radiation Therapy, will not be radioactive at any time. The only time there is any active radiation present at all is when the patient is in the treatment room and the machine is turned on. As soon as the machine is turned off, there is no radiation in the person’s body, and they present no danger to anyone around them.
For patients having low dose rate (LDR) radiotherapy, if permanent radioactive sources are inserted they do have to observe some simple radiation precautions for a few days or weeks after the procedure. However, this does not pose a risk for their spouse or partner and should not stop them from spending time with their loved ones, including children or pets.
Am I alone during radiotherapy treatment?
Patients are alone during treatment delivery; however, the radiographers can see patients in the treatment room via CCTV, they will also be able to hear and speak to you via an intercom.
Does radiation therapy cause infertility?
In certain situations, especially in children or young adults, radiotherapy can affect fertility if the treatment needs to be directed at organs that are part of the reproductive system. In these cases, options for preserving fertility and other options for having a child in the future would be carefully discussed with the relevant doctors. For example, sperm from boys or men in whom fertility may be affected by radiotherapy or other cancer treatments, may be frozen and stored and similarly for women.
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