Radiation therapy uses a controlled dose of radiation to kill cancer cells or damage them so they cannot grow, multiply or spread. The radiation is usually in the form of focused x-ray beams, also known as photons. It can also be in other forms such as electron beams, proton beams or gamma rays from radioactive sources. It is a localised treatment, which means it generally affects only the part of the body where the radiation is targeted.
How it works
Radiation therapy kills or damages cancer cells in the area being treated. Cancer cells begin to die days or weeks after treatment starts, and continue to die for weeks or months after it finishes. Although the radiation can also damage healthy cells, these tend to be less sensitive than the cancer cells and can usually repair themselves. You should not feel any pain or heat during radiation therapy, but some side effects can cause pain or discomfort. Read about ways to prevent or manage side effects.
Reasons for having radiation therapy
Research shows that about one in two people with cancer would benefit from radiation therapy. 1 It can be used for different reasons:
As the main treatment to achieve remission or cure
Radiation therapy may be given as the main treatment with the aim of causing the signs and symptoms of cancer to reduce or disappear. This is called curative or definitive radiation therapy.
To help other treatments achieve remission or cure
Radiation therapy is often used before (neoadjuvant) or after (adjuvant) treatments such as surgery to make the treatment more effective. It can also be used at the same time as some treatments – when it is combined with chemotherapy, it is known as chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy.
For symptom relief
Radiation therapy can help to relieve pain and other symptoms by making the cancer smaller or stopping it from spreading. This is known as palliative treatment.
Working during radiation therapy
Many people can continue to work during their treatment and feel well enough to do all their usual activities. Others may need to reduce their hours or take time off. How much you will be able to work depends on the type of radiation therapy you have, how the treatment makes you feel and the type of work you do. You may be able to organise your radiation therapy appointments for the beginning or end of the day.
Talk to your employer about your working arrangements. Explain that it is hard to predict how radiation therapy will affect you, and discuss the options of flexible hours, modifying duties or taking leave.
Your treatment team will encourage you to be as active as possible, and they can answer your questions about working during treatment.
Radiation therapy and pregnancy
You probably won't be able to have radiation therapy if you are pregnant, as radiation can harm a developing baby. It's important that you don't become pregnant during the course of treatment. If you suspect you may be pregnant at any stage, it is important to tell your doctor. Men who have radiation therapy should avoid getting their partner pregnant during treatment and for about six months afterwards, as radiation can damage sperm.
Your doctor will be able to give you more information about radiation therapy and pregnancy.
Health professionals you may see
After a diagnosis of cancer, you will usually be cared for by a range of health professionals who specialise in different areas of your treatment. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT). For external beam radiation therapy and brachytherapy, the main specialist doctor will be a radiation oncologist. You may be referred to a radiation oncologist by your GP or by another specialist such as a surgeon or medical oncologist. Some of the health professionals you may see during and after treatment are listed in the table below.
||assesses you for radiation therapy, prescribes and coordinates the course of radiation therapy
||plans and delivers radiation therapy
|radiation oncology nurses
||help you manage emotional and physical problems, including side effects that you may experience during treatment
|radiation oncology medical physicist
||ensures radiation therapy is delivered accurately and safely by checking radiation treatment plan and ensuring radiation therapy machines are running correctly
||recommends an eating plan to follow while you are in treatment and recovery
||helps with communication and swallowing
||links you to support services and helps you with emotional, practical or financial issues
||uses counselling to help you manage your emotional response to diagnosis and treatment
||helps you with any physical or practical issues associated with cancer and treatment
||assists in adapting your living and working environment to help you resume usual activities
||educates people about lymphoedema prevention and management, and provides treatment if lymphoedema occurs
* specialist doctor
Expert content reviewers:
Dr Tiffany Daly, Radiation Oncologist, Radiation Oncology Princess Alexandra Raymond Terrace (ROPART), South Brisbane, QLD; Elly Keating, Acting Principal Radiation Therapist, Northern Territory Radiation Oncology, Alan Walker Cancer Care Centre, NT; Julie O'Rourke, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Radiation Oncology, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Ching Tsao, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; A/Prof Sandra Turner, Clinical Lead, Targeting Cancer Campaign, Faculty of Radiation Oncology, Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists (RANZCR), NSW; Dr David Waterhouse, Acting Principal Radiation Oncology Medical Physicist, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; David Wells, Consumer.
- MB Barton et al., “Estimating the demand for radiotherapy from the evidence: a review of changes from 2003 to 2012”, Radiotherapy and Oncology, vol. 112, no. 1, 2014, pages 140–44. doi: 10.1016/j.radonc.2014.03.024.