Contributed by Nate Esplin, Lead Radiation Therapist at the EIRMC Cancer Center

What is radiation?

Radiation is something that is electrically produced. It is high powered and interacts with certain elements that create an x-ray beam. That beam has the ability to therapeutically treat cancer cells. Radiation is effective when a cell may be growing out of control, and when it can be calculated and harnessed.  Radiation is very effective against a vast amount and types of cancer.

What are radiation treatments like?

Any patient diagnosed with cancer will be presented with a variety of treatment options. The patient's treatment is overseen by a treatment planning team, or a group of specialized doctors that may include a radiation oncologist, a medical oncologist—who is a chemo doctor, or a surgeon. Once that team has evaluated the patient, they will decide the best treatment, or combination of treatments, for the patient.

When the patient and the radiation oncologist meet, the oncologist will discuss all the implications and rationale related to the specific treatment they may receive. They answer all questions and concerns the patient may have.

Once treatment is determined, the patient will return to the EIRMC Cancer Center for what is called a simulation. That room has all the equipment that we would use for radiation treatment including a lot of specialized devices that will help us immobilize any area. In all cases, we need the patient to be in a stable position for the radiation. We work alongside the doctor to establish the position that's going to be the best for the patient. Once that's been determined, along with any positioning markers that are used for alignment with specialized positioning lasers, CT scan is taken. Those three-dimensional images allow the doctor to evaluate and plan radiation doses where the treatment needs to take place and what critical anatomy can be spared unnecessary dose.

How long will treatments take?

The amount of time a radiation treatment takes can vary depending on what type of cancer a patient has. The treatments themselves—when the patient is in the room —can last anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. The length of those treatments on a daily basis also varies anywhere from one day to 9 weeks.

Who will give me my treatments?

A team of radiation therapists will provide the daily radiation treatments. Our responsibility is to make sure that we reproduce the patient's exact position each day. During each treatment, we bring the patient in and line them up to any marks that we have creating for positioning. We have a many different verification devices, including parameters that are set for the machine and the table, that help us confirm each time that the patient is in the exact position.

Will I feel anything?

Most of the time when patients are receiving radiation treatment they do not sense or feel anything. Some of it can depend on where the radiation is being directed. But for the vast majority, they are only required to lie still during the treatment.

What are my responsibilities during treatment?

For the most part, the responsibilities of radiation patients during treatment are few. All a patient needs to do is hold as still as they can for the duration of that treatment. They do not have to worry about holding their breath. We also have closed video circuits and an audio intercom so that we can interact with the patient during their treatment if any need were to arise.

Will I have difficult side effects?

The nice thing about radiation side effects is that they are site-specific. The radiation, since it can be directed only where it is necessary, usually only yields side effects to the specific area being treated. When we talk to patients, we do our very best to provide education and encouragement regarding the potential side effects to that treatment area, and daily contact with the treatment team allows us to manage any changes or difficulties very thoroughly throughout the treatment.

Will I be radioactive?

Many patients worry if they will be radioactive or if they need to be worried about family members being close to them. Fortunately, the treatments at The EIRMC Cancer Center are external beam radiation. So, once the treatment has been delivered, it is no longer radioactive. Patients do not have to worry about exposure to anyone else.

At the EIRMC Cancer Center, we perform over 5,000 cancer treatments annually. If you or a loved one you know has recently been diagnosed with cancer, feel free to give us a call at 227-2700 to see what we may be able to provide.