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May 13, 2022

What to expect before, during, and after radiation therapy

Adult Health Radiation

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Purchased - advanced linear accelerator in the therapeutic oncology cancer therapy in the modern hospital Povozniuk/

If you’ve received a cancer diagnosis, there’s a good chance you’ll need radiation therapy. More than half of people diagnosed with cancer receive this type of treatment, but the thought of undergoing radiation can be scary for patients and their loved ones.

Knowing what to expect before, during, and after radiation therapy can make this very difficult journey a little more manageable.

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy uses beams of intense energy to kill cancer cells. It’s a localized treatment designed to affect only the part of the body being treated, but it can sometimes harm normal cells in addition to cancerous ones.

The radiation destroys the DNA in cancer cells, which keeps them from continuing to multiply. You may undergo radiation therapy before or after surgery, and either on its own or in conjunction with another treatment such as chemotherapy.

Different types of radiation therapy

Your oncologist will weigh a number of factors, including your type of cancer, the size and location of the tumor, your overall health, and the tumor location to determine if you should receive radiation, and if so, how.

With external beam radiation therapy, waves of energy are directed into the body. With internal radiation therapy, a source of radiation is implanted in your body near the site of your cancer.

How to prepare

Preparing for internal radiation therapy is like preparing for many other surgical procedures. Depending on the size of the implant, your doctor will advise you on how long you must stay in the hospital and if an additional procedure will be needed to remove the implant.

Preparation for external radiation therapy is done with the team who will administer the treatment. Patients undergo a radiation simulation where they lie on the procedure table to find the right position and mark the treatment location.

In addition, patients will undergo a number of CT scans to take a picture of the area impacted by the cancer to ensure the correct treatments.

What radiation therapy is like

During external radiation therapy, you lie still on a table while the device beaming energy into your body (called a linear accelerator) moves around you. The treatment usually lasts between 10 and 30 minutes.

For internal therapy, expect to go into an operating room. You may receive general or local anesthesia depending on the size of the implant and location, and the procedure will also involve imaging to help position the implant. Some implants are removed once treatment is complete and others remain in the body permanently (they stop being radioactive after some time).


Everyone reacts to radiation therapy differently, so it’s impossible to know exactly how long your personal recovery will take. Side effects can also be amplified by the amount of radiation used and the location of the tumor.

Fatigue is very common and typically peaks around week six of the treatment. Skin irritation occurs at the spot where radiation is being sent into the body, and it may even lead to blistering and pain. Hair loss is one of the more well-known side effects, and it will affect the parts of your body being exposed to radiation.

While radiation therapy is effective at killing cancer cells, it can be a physically and mentally taxing treatment . It’s important for patients to share any changes in symptoms or side effects with their doctor, who may suggest medicines, lifestyle changes, or other approaches to manage discomfort.

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