How Does Radiation Work?
When radiation enters your body, it is absorbed by both the normal and abnormal cells. It damages the cancer cells by breaking up their DNA strands in the nucleus of the cell. If sufficient damage is inflicted, then the cell cannot continue to grow and reproduce, and usually dies. Normal body cells are also damaged by radiation. However, usually a smaller proportion of them are so affected, and in some cases normal cells are more capable of repairing radiation damage. Thus, the damage to tumor cells outweighs that to normal cells. The goal of your radiation therapy team is to minimize any unnecessary damage to your healthy cells, while successfully eradicating the malignant cells.
Will I Become Radioactive During My Treatment?
During or after your radiation therapy treatment you will not become radioactive unless you have a permanent implant. You can interact with family members and friends in a normal manner. If you have a permanent implant, you will be advised about any restrictions regarding contact with family and friends. The permanent implants are "permanent " only in the sense that the material remains in your body and is not removed. The radiation from the implant will rapidly diminish during the weeks following your treatment to the point where it is undetectable.
What About Side Effects?
While undergoing radiation, the symptoms of cancer are often relieved and you will actually feel better. However, because of the effects of radiation on your normal tissue, you may experience certain side effects. These will depend on the part of the body being treated, the amount of radiation you are given, and your body's individual response. It is important to keep in mind that most of the side effects can be controlled with medication, diet (eating well), and other appropriate measures. Most people receiving therapy lead normal lives and can continue work during their treatment. Most of the side effects from your treatments will gradually diminish within a few weeks after therapy has been completed.
Most patients experience some degree of fatigue during the course of their treatments. This may persist for a few weeks after the end of the therapy. Please remember that this fatigue has nothing to do with your disease and that it is the most common side effect of your treatment, one which will gradually disappear. Before your treatment begins, the radiation oncologist and the nurse will discuss what other possible side effects, if any, might occur and what measures you can take to control or relieve them. They are also available every day to evaluate any side effects you may be having or to answer any questions you have.
What About Birth Control?
It is important for both men and women to practice birth control during the course of treatment. Please feel free to discuss this with your nurse or physician.
What Do You Mean by "Eating Well"?
Eating a well balanced nutritional diet is especially important for people with cancer. Many cancer patients lose weight because they do not eat as much food as their body needs. The disease, depression, or unpleasant side effects of treatment may cause them to eat less. Your nurse can discuss whatever difficulty you may be having and help guide you. There are many tips, recipes, and suggestions available that can help increase your appetite and improve you present diet.
How Many Treatments Will I Need?
To protect normal tissue, radiation treatments are given in a series of small doses. The total treatment course is determined after careful analysis of your particular problem. A typical series of treatments consists of four or five treatments a week, lasting from four to six weeks.
Can I Miss a Treatment?
Unless a "treatment break" is prescribed by your doctor, it is preferable to receive all of your radiation therapy treatments in sequence. Occasionally, because of machine malfunction, a treatment may be canceled. In this case a make-up treatment will be added at the end of your originally scheduled course. The same is true if you cannot come in for a scheduled treatment. Notify your nurse and/or technologist by telephone if you have to miss an appointment.
What is a "Machine Malfunction"? Can the Treatment Machine Harm Me?
The linear accelerators that deliver your treatment are complex machines costing millions of dollars and they do occasionally break down. Because of the very fact that the machines do deliver large doses of radiation, the number one concern of the manufacturer and your hospital staff is patient safety. Linear accelerators in clinical use have many, many redundant saftey systems to assure that you, our patient, is never in any danger.
When malfunctions are detected, the machine will experience a "saftey interlock" condition that will prevent it from being operated until the condition is corrected. However, it is very important for you, as a pateint, to follow all instructions given you by the treatment staff to protect your wellbeing during treaments.
For additional information, please call (631) 444-4000.