Radiation therapy

Receiving radiation therapy

There are two main ways of receiving radiation therapy:

External beam radiation therapy (EBRT)

Radiation beams from a large machine are aimed at the area of the body where the cancer is located. The process is similar to having an x-ray. You will lie on a treatment table underneath the machine, which will move around your body. You won't see or feel the radiation, although the machine can make noise as it moves. See more information about EBRT.

Internal radiation therapy

A radiation source is placed inside the body or, more rarely, injected into a vein or swallowed. The most common form of internal radiation therapy is brachytherapy, where temporary or permanent radiation sources are placed inside the body next to or inside the cancer. See more information about internal radiation therapy.

You may have one or both types of radiation therapy, depending on the type of cancer and other factors.

Where treatment is given

Radiation therapy is usually given in the radiation oncology department of a large hospital or treatment centre, or in private clinics. The large machines used for external beam radiation therapy will be in a dedicated room.

While treatment schedules vary, most people have radiation therapy as an outpatient. This means you do not stay in hospital, but travel to the treatment centre for each session. Radiation therapy centres will try to arrange treatment times that suit you. For some types of internal radiation therapy, you will need to stay in hospital overnight or for a few days.

Treatment response

Because cancer cells continue to die for weeks or months after treatment ends, your radiation oncologist most likely won't be able to tell you how the cancer is responding during treatment. However, they can help you manage any side effects. After treatment finishes, you will have regular checkups. Your radiation oncologist will do a physical examination and arrange tests or scans to check whether the cancer has responded to treatment. It may be some time after radiation therapy finishes before the full benefit is known.

If radiation therapy is given as palliative treatment, the relief of symptoms will indicate that the treatment has worked. This may take a few days or weeks. Until then, you may need to have symptoms treated in others ways, e.g. medicine for pain.

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.

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