Frequently asked questions about radiation therapy

What is the aim of radiation therapy?

This is very person dependent. For many, radiation therapy can be used in an effort to eliminate all cancer cells as part of a curative treatment approach. For others radiation therapy may be used to slow tumor growth, reduce pressure, pain and other symptoms of cancer in cases when it is not possible to completely eliminate the disease. This is called palliative radiation therapy, and the aim is to improve a person’s quality of life. Discussing the purpose of treatment is a good conversation to have with your radiation oncologist.

Will I be radioactive?

External beam radiation therapy (the type most people receive) won't make you radioactive. For this treatment the radiation is generated electrically (not using a radioactive source). No radiation remains in your body so it is fine to be around other people while you are having treatment.
Brachytherapy (internal radiation therapy) treatment, delivers radiation using an implanted radioactive source which, while in place, will be emitting radiation. If you are receiving this type of treatment any precautions required will be explained to you in detail.

Does radiation therapy cause another cancer?

Having radiation therapy slightly increases the risk of developing a second cancer. However, it is important to remember that, for many people, radiation therapy can eliminate the current, existing cancer. This benefit far outweighs the small risk that treatment could cause a new cancer later in life.

Does radiation therapy harm surrounding organs?

Radiation does damage cancer cells and some surrounding healthy tissues. For example, men with prostate cancer who receive radiation therapy to the prostate may experience bowel or bladder side effects because all these organs are located very close to each other. Radiation is directed precisely and surrounding organs are shielded as much as possible. 
Talk with your radiation oncologist to learn what parts of your body could be affected by treatment and how to manage potential side effects.

Can I feel, see or smell the radiation?

Most people cannot feel radiation during treatment, so there is no need to worry that it will be painful. A few people have reported a slight warming or tingling sensation in the area being treated. You cannot see radiation but some people may notice a slight metallic smell.

Is radiation therapy always used with chemotherapy and/or surgery?

No. Radiation therapy alone can be an effective treatment for some types and stages of cancer.
Others respond best to a combination of treatments, which may include radiation, surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy or immunotherapy.

How should I care for my skin in the treatment area?

Please do not apply anything to the treatment area without first checking with a member of your radiation team. On your first day, a radiation therapist will show you the area being treated and will give you a booklet with specific instructions on how to care for your skin.
Treatment areas should be protected from any irritation such as rubbing, friction, and pressure.
Skin in the treatment area needs to be protected from sunlight, and excessive heat and cold.

Can I go swimming or have a spa?

You can swim in the sea while on treatment (as long as your skin isn't too sore) but we recommend avoiding chlorinated pools and spas. It is fine to swim anywhere once skin reactions have resolved.

Can I exercise or go to work?

Many people find that keeping active while having radiation treatment helps to reduce fatigue.
Listen to your body; if you feel like a rest, try to make some time to do so.
For most patients as long as you feel well and able there is no reason why you can't go to work. If you have concerns about driving or operating machinery, talk to your radiation therapy team.
For more information read the Cancer Society’s brochure on 'Being active when you have cancer(external link)'.

Will my hair fall out?

Radiation therapy is a localised treatment, meaning it only affects the area receiving treatment. For example, if we are treating your pelvis then it won't affect the hair on your head.
Hair loss may be permanent or temporary, it depends on how much radiation you are given.
If we expect you to lose hair from your head, information will be given about wigs and head accessories.

Will radiation therapy treatment affect my fertility?

Radiation to the pelvic area may affect fertility. Your oncologist can discuss options to preserve fertility before starting any treatment. They can also tell you how long you should wait before attempting to conceive a child. Please discuss the need for contraception.
If you are a woman of childbearing age, it is important that you do not become pregnant during your treatment. Radiation treatment given during pregnancy could harm a developing baby.
If you think that you may be pregnant at any time during your treatment, please tell your radiation therapy team immediately.

Where can I park?

Please refer to the Parking information section.

Can I request an appointment time

Appointments are scheduled week to week and given out every Thursday. If you have a time preference or clash with another medical appointment, please discuss this at the earliest convenience. Every effort will be made to accommodate your request but please remember the department is looking after about 100 people each day.

Will I be treated on the same machine and by the same staff each day?

Our department has four treatment units. Generally you will be scheduled on one unit but you can receive the identical treatment on another. This commonly occurs on routine maintenance days and when there are unexpected delays.
Radiation therapists are qualified to work in any area of the department and have a roster change every few months. There are also a number of part-time staff members. We do aim for continuity of care.

Can I take dietary supplements such as vitamins during radiation therapy?

Some supplements are fine to take but others are not. You should tell your treatment team about any supplements you are taking before your radiation therapy begins.
The best way to makes sure you are getting all the nutrients you need is to eat a healthy, balanced diet. If you have any questions about what to eat feel free to ask.
For more information on maintaining a healthy diet see the Cancer Society’s booklet - Eating well during cancer treatment(external link).

What do I need to know if I am having treatment in the weekend?

Occasionally treatment may be given on a weekend. For security reasons some access maybe restricted. You will be given written instructions on where to enter and exit the department.

Can I take supplements or use complementary or alternative therapy while I am having radiation therapy?

We understand you may want to do all you can to support yourself when you have a cancer diagnosis and are undergoing treatment. We support people in maintaining their wellness. However, it is very important to speak with your radiation oncologist about any supplements, over the counter medicines, complementary or alternative medicines or therapies you may be taking or considering starting, for any reason, not just cancer related. We base any decision about using these medicines or therapies on scientific evidence available. Some have proven benefits while others (even natural remedies) can reduce the potential affect of radiation therapy.

For further information

What websites do you recommend for cancer related information?

The internet is undoubtedly a great source of information; however, we recommend you exercise caution.

We suggest using the following resources:
The suggested websites are independent of Waikato District Health Board and while we believe they offer credible information we cannot guarantee that the information on each site is correct, up-to-date, or evidence-based medical information. Information needs to be considered in your own context.