What to expect
What happens first?
Once the diagnosis has been made, you will probably talk with your primary care physician along with several cancer specialists, such as a surgeon, a medical oncologist (treats with chemotherapy) and a radiation oncologist (treats with radiation therapy). You will want to ask these doctors about all your treatment options.
In many cases, your cancer will need to be treated by using more than one type of treatment. For example, if you have breast cancer, you might have surgery to remove the tumor (by a surgeon), then have radiation therapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells in or near your breast (by a radiation oncologist). You also might receive chemotherapy (by a medical oncologist) to destroy cancer cells that have traveled to other parts of the body.
After reviewing your medical tests, including CT scans, MRI scans and PET scans, and completing a thorough examination, your radiation oncologist will discuss with you the potential benefits and risks of radiation therapy and answer your questions.
Before Radiation Treatment
If you are considering radiation therapy, you must first meet with a radiation oncologist. During your first visit, your doctor will evaluate your need for radiation therapy and its likely results. This includes reviewing your current medical problems, past medical history, past surgical history, family history, medications, allergies and lifestyle. The doctor will also perform a physical exam to assess the extent of your disease and judge your general physical condition.
During Radiation Treatment
When you undergo external beam radiation therapy treatment, each session is painless, just like getting an X-ray. The radiation is directed at your tumor from a machine located away from your body, usually a linear accelerator. External beam radiation is noninvasive, unlike surgery, which is an invasive process. One of the benefits of radiation therapy is that it is usually given as a series of outpatient treatments (meaning you don’t have to stay in the hospital). You may not need to miss work or experience the type of recuperation period that may follow other treatments.
The radiation therapist will give you your external beam treatment following your radiation oncologist’s instructions. It will take five to 15 minutes for you to be positioned for treatment and for the equipment to be set up. If an immobilization device was made during simulation, it will be used during every treatment to make sure that you are in the exact same position every day. Time spent in the treatment room may vary depending on the type of radiation, but it generally ranges from 10 to 40 minutes.
Once you are positioned correctly, the therapist will leave the room and go into the control room next door to closely monitor you on a television screen while giving the radiation. There is a microphone in the treatment room so you can always talk with the therapist if you have any concerns. The machine can be stopped at any time if you are feeling sick or uncomfortable.
The radiation therapist may move the treatment machine and treatment table to target the radiation beam to the exact area of the tumor. The machine might make noises during treatment that sound like clicking, knocking or whirring, but the radiation therapist is in complete control of the machine at all times.
After Radiation Treatment
After treatment is completed, follow-up appointments will be scheduled so that your radiation oncologist can make sure your recovery is proceeding normally. Your radiation oncologist, in concert with other members of your team, may also order additional diagnostic tests. Reports on your treatment may also be sent to the other doctors helping treat your cancer. As time goes by, the number of times you need to visit your radiation oncologist will decrease. However, you should know that your radiation oncology team will always be available should you need to speak to someone about your treatment.