If radiation therapy has been recommended to treat your cancer, understanding what happens during radiation therapy and what you can expect after your first radiation treatment are important. Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers provides the most advanced radiation therapy treatments to thousands of patients every year throughout Colorado.
Continue reading below to learn more about what will happen during your radiation treatment for cancer or jump directly to the section that interests you the most by clicking on one of the questions:
- What can I expect at my first radiation therapy treatment appointment?
- What can I expect if I am receiving external beam radiation therapy?
- What can I expect if I am receiving internal beam radiation therapy, also called brachytherapy?
- What side effects can I expect after radiation therapy?
- What is unique about receiving radiation therapy at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers?
What to expect during radiation treatment for cancer depends on whether you are having external beam radiation therapy or internal radiation therapy, also called high-dose-rate (HDR) brachytherapy.
Your first radiation therapy appointment won’t include any actual radiation therapy. Instead, you’ll come in for a CT scan, which is used to help plan your radiation therapy. You will be positioned as you would during treatment — usually lying flat on your back — and scans will be taken of the area of the body that will be treated. You also will have tiny permanent marks (sometimes referred to as “tattoos” although they look more like a freckle) that will guide the targeting of the radiation therapy during treatment. This appointment takes about 30 minutes.
After you leave, Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers’ expert radiation therapy team will use your scans to map out the exact location of the cancer within your body as well as noting the location of any surrounding healthy organs that need to be avoided during treatment.
Computer modeling is then used to simulate the dose of radiation that will be delivered to the tumor during treatment. Your radiation oncologist reviews the model to ensure the proper amount of radiation will reach the target areas. The radiation physicist then runs quality checks on the plan before your treatment even begins. This process can take up to two weeks so don’t be alarmed if your first treatment doesn’t happen immediately.
External beam radiation treatment for cancer is typically administered every day, Monday through Friday, for five to eight weeks. About two weeks after your first radiation therapy appointment when you have the simulation scan, you’ll begin your treatments.
Each visit will be relatively short, lasting between 15 and 30 minutes. Most of that time will be spent lying on a table while the radiation therapist gets the equipment set up around you.
At Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, we utilize image-guided radiation therapy, or IGRT. During each visit, new X-rays or low-dose CT scans of your body will be made and compared with the initial scan to determine if the tumor has moved — even by just a hair’s distance — and the radiation is adjusted accordingly.
Our dosimetrists check and calibrate our equipment daily and the equipment will not run if it is not calibrated correctly. All of this is done to ensure your safety and the effectiveness of treatment.
You will be asked to lie still for the actual treatment, which will last only a few minutes. The treatment itself is painless and is similar to getting an X-ray. You may hear clicking and whirring sounds during the treatment as the machine positions itself. During the treatment, the radiation therapist will be in a small room adjacent to your treatment room and watching you at all times. You will be able to communicate with your radiation therapist via intercom and should feel free to ask to stop if you feel sick or scared.
Sessions for internal radiation therapy last longer than external beam radiation treatments, but there are fewer of them. Internal radiation therapy for cancer may be completed in one session or a series of three to five sessions about a week apart.
During internal radiation therapy, you will be given local anesthetic to numb the area being treated. A catheter or catheters — small tubes sometimes called ports or applicators — will be placed at the site of the tumor. Radioactive material is then delivered directly to the tumor through the catheters. The radiation therapy comes in many forms, including pellets, seeds, ribbons, wires, needles, capsules, balloons, or tubes. Depending on the type of radioactive material used, it will be left in place for only a couple of minutes and then removed or it may be left in permanently. Radioactive material that is left in permanently gradually wears off over the course of a few weeks until it no longer gives off radiation.
How you feel after your first radiation treatment for cancer will depend on the type of treatment you had, the location of your cancer, and other characteristics that are unique to you. In many cases, you will not experience any side effects initially, but may experience some after multiple treatments as the therapy has a cumulative effect.
If you had internal radiation, you may experience soreness or tenderness where the catheter was inserted, and you likely will experience some degree of fatigue. You also may have side effects from any medication you were given during the treatment.
If you had external beam radiation, you may experience skin changes and fatigue following your initial treatment, or you may not have any radiation therapy side effects at all. Some people don’t develop side effects from external radiation until they’ve had several treatments.
If you are a patient and are experiencing worsening symptoms from your treatment, such as those listed below, our medical professionals are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help. We can assess signs and symptoms, schedule you for an in-office, same or next day appointment and help you avoid a trip to the Urgent Care, ER or unplanned hospitalization. In the event of a life-threatening emergency, always call 911. Call us if you are experiencing:
- Chills or fever greater than 100.4
- Burning with urination , frequency, urgency, lower back pain (UTI)
- Productive cough with green, yellow, red, brown sputum
- Unmanaged diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting
- Unmanaged pain
- Swelling, redness and pain on extremities
- Shortness of breath/chest pain
- Dizziness with changing position or lightheadedness
- Dark urine, less urine than normal, thirst, dry mouth (dehydration)
- Mouth sores, difficulty swallowing, frequent or sever heartburn
- Severe fatigue
Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers is the largest community-based cancer treatment provider in Colorado. We use the most current technology and our treatment practices are supported by medical research. Because we specialize in treatment, we care for patients who are diagnosed throughout Colorado in many different health systems and are referred to us for treatment. If you have been diagnosed or even started treatment at another facility, we can coordinate with your referring physician — whether your primary care physician or surgeon — to create a treatment plan for you and keep them in the loop every step of the way.
When you receive radiation treatment for cancer at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, you will be in the hands of a highly skilled radiation therapy team that is headed by board-certified radiation oncologists who have many years of experience. In addition, your team will include the most highly trained radiation therapy specialists, including dosimetrists, technicians, nurses, licensed oncology clinical social workers, and Patient Financial Counselors who specialize in dealing with radiation therapy patients.