Starting radiation therapy

Knowing what to expect can help you prepare for your first radiation therapy visit

Your first visit

Radiation therapy is a complex treatment, and creating an individualised treatment plan for your specific needs can require a number of appointments. Usually appointments will be on different days, but you may be taken through on the same day depending on your needs.

After your diagnosis, one of our nurses will talk about your radiation treatment with you, including management of your skin, as well as possible side effects. We encourage you to bring a family member, friend or carer to be part of this discussion. You will then meet with a radiation therapist to discuss your treatment and be provided an explanation of the process and what to expect, including time frames.

Radiation therapy is scheduled over an extended period of time, usually from weeks to months, enabling sessions to be as short as possible and for healthy cells to recover. A treatment session may only last 15 to 20 minutes, however you may need to attend other appointments, such as seeing your radiation oncologist.

What do I need to bring with me?

Completed Registration, Medical History and Consent to Collect Information forms (unless these have already been provided to the centre)
Medicare card, Seniors card, DVA card, or any other relevant healthcare cards
Current referral letter from your referring practitioner (unless this has already been provided to the centre)
A list of your current medications including names, doses and frequency (your pharmacist will be able to provide you with an up-to-date list, or you may choose to bring in original packaging and scripts)
All X-rays, CTs, MRIs, bone and other radiological or nuclear medicine scans/reports you have obtained during the investigation of your medical condition
Pathology reports for blood and histopathology tests (your referring doctor may send these directly to us or give them to you)

Radiation therapy planning

Radiation therapy planning is the first step in creating your treatment plan. At this appointment we review your personal medical history to determine the most appropriate way to treat you. This appointment may take two to four hours.

The first part takes approximately 40 minutes. A radiation therapist will collect you from the waiting room, and may ask you to change into a gown before they take you into the simulation room.

Once you are changed, your radiation therapist will talk to you about the simulation session and answer any questions. During this session your radiation therapy treatment position will be identified.

Your treatment position is often determined using a CT scanner, which identifies the cancer and surrounding structures. This enables our team to localise the areas you are having treated. Extra equipment may be required to identify a specific position. As this position needs to be accurately reproduced throughout your treatment you may require very small permanent and/or non-permanent marks to assist with this process. Any marks needed for your treatment will be fully explained during your planning session.

Your radiation therapist or nurse will discuss how to care for your skin during radiation therapy and suggest appropriate clothing to wear during treatment. They will also advise any specific requirements needed for your treatment, for example, whether you must have a full or empty bladder.

What to expect during your treatment

Radiation therapists are responsible for delivering your treatment. You will lie in exactly the same position that you were in at your radiation therapy simulation appointment. The radiation therapists will ensure your exact position is replicated each day. Treatment set-up usually takes about 5-10 minutes and is often longer than the treatment time itself.

Once you are positioned, you will need to stay as still and relaxed as possible. The radiation therapists will let you know when they are exiting the room; you will be closely monitored at all times. There are microphones present if you need to speak with your radiation therapists.

A CT scan or x-ray may be taken before commencing your treatment to ensure you are correctly positioned. Once it commences, the treatment may only take a few minutes. The machine is operated from the control area outside the room. Your therapist will typically stay outside the room until your treatment is completed. You will not feel or see the radiation during your treatment, but you will hear the machine operating. It is important that you remain still until you are told that you can move.

Regular reviews will occur throughout your treatment sessions. This is to ensure the treatment is progressing and allow for any changes. Nurses will regularly check in with you at your appointments to see how you are feeling and provide information and support.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does radiation therapy make you radioactive?

External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) does not make you radioactive, and it is perfectly safe for you to be with and around other people, including children, throughout your treatment.

Can I miss a radiation therapy treatment appointment?

Your individual radiation therapy treatment plan has been carefully calculated, so it is important that you do not miss any appointments. However, if missing an appointment is unavoidable, please discuss this with your radiation therapists as soon as you can.

Will I lose my hair?

Radiation therapy is a local treatment, meaning it only affects the area of the body where the radiation is targeted. Unless your radiation treatment is targeted at an area where hair grows, such as your scalp or face, you will not lose your hair. People having radiation therapy for breast cancer may find their underarm hair will fall out if it is near the radiated area, however it will grow back in time.

Can I drive after treatment?

Yes, it is safe for you to drive after you receive radiation therapy treatment. However, if you feel unfit or unwell to do so, please advise a team member immediately.

Will radiation therapy affect my fertility?

This depends on where you are having treatment. If you are a woman having radiation therapy to the abdomen or pelvis, the amount of radiation absorbed by the ovaries will determine the potential impact on your fertility. Radiation to the pituitary gland may also influence fertility, as the pituitary gland normally signals the ovaries to ovulate. Radiation to both testes in men is rare, however if you require this therapy your fertility may be affected. Your doctor will talk to you about how your treatment may impact your fertility. Please speak with your radiation oncologist should you or your partner wish to become pregnant, or if you have fertility concerns.

Does radiation affect pregnancy?

It is important you are not pregnant or become pregnant at any time during radiation therapy, as x-rays for positioning can harm the foetus. If you think you may be pregnant at any time, it is extremely important to discuss this with a member of the radiation therapy team. If you wish to become pregnant after your treatment please discuss this with your radiation oncologist prior to commencing.

Can I father children during radiation therapy?

For men having radiation therapy to their pelvic region, it is advised that you do not father children during treatment. Radiation therapy may damage your sperm, which can lead to birth abnormalities. If you wish to father children after this treatment, please discuss this with your radiation oncologist prior to commencing.

What are the side effects of radiation therapy?

People who receive radiation therapy may experience skin dryness, itching, blistering, or peeling. These usually resolve a few weeks after treatment has finished. A common side effect is fatigue, a feeling of exhaustion that does not improve with rest. Your level of fatigue may depend on whether you are undergoing other treatments, such as chemotherapy. Although most side effects go away after radiation therapy has finished, some long-term effects may occur.

As radiation therapy is localised to an area of the body, you may only experience side effects in this area. Your radiation oncologist and treatment team will discuss the type of side effects you may experience, however it is important to advise of any effects you notice.

Will I feel nauseated?

If you have radiation therapy to your abdominal region, you may get an upset stomach and feel nauseated. This will usually resolve when your course of treatment is completed. If you notice you are feeling nauseated for a prolonged period of time, please inform our team so we can suggest ways to manage this.

Does radiation therapy hurt?

Radiation therapy is typically painless and most patients will feel  little to no discomfort during treatment. You will not see the radiation, but you may hear noise from the equipment. Please tell the radiation therapist if the position is causing you pain or is making you feel unwell.

How long does radiation therapy treatment take?

Radiation therapy is scheduled over an extended period of time, usually from weeks to months, enabling sessions to be as short as possible and for healthy cells to recover. A treatment session may only last 15 to 20 minutes, however you may need to attend other appointments, such as seeing your radiation oncologist.

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