Radiation Treatment – How it Works and What to Expect

Asian woman receiving radiation treatment

You’ve heard those three dreaded words: YOU HAVE CANCER.

In one sentence, your life is permanently altered. Before you have time to absorb the shock, your doctor is talking about next steps and the best course of treatment. For 40-60 percent of cancer patients, treatment involves radiation.

While we all know the term, unless you’ve walked the steps of a patient fighting cancer, you likely don’t know much about radiation therapy. Simply put, it’s high-energy X-rays that directly target and shrink tumors while killing cancer cells.

“Breast cancer is the most common cancer we see,” said Daniel Ferraro, MD, PhD, a radiation oncologist at the Memorial Regional Cancer Center. “Lung cancer is second, followed by bone metastases (when cancerous cells enter the bones), head and neck cancers and prostate. Patients come every day for treatment, anywhere from two to seven weeks.”

How radiation works

The Memorial Regional Cancer Center has two radiation rooms that both contain the most advanced model of linear accelerators called TrueBeam.  These machines deliver high-energy electrons, or X-rays, from various angles to target each part of the tumor. The radiation damages the DNA in cancerous cells, which interrupts their ability to reproduce, causing them to die. Then, the normal cells recover from the radiation.

Standard radiation usually takes less than 15 minutes and is controlled from a computer outside of the room. “You do not feel radiation. Treatments do not hurt, and you don’t leave radioactive,” Dr. Ferraro said.

What to expect during treatment

  1. You’ll meet one of the four radiation oncologists to discuss the recommended type of radiation and best treatment plan, which depends on the type and severity of the cancer.
  1. Next is a process called radiation simulation, which is similar to a standard CT scan. The information from the scan is used to make a very detailed model of your anatomy in the position you will be treated.
  1. The physician and a team of highly-specialized individuals use this model to create a customized set of instructions for the linear accelerator to deliver radiation treatment. Once this treatment plan and multiple quality-control calculations are complete, you’re ready for radiation treatment.

Listen to Dr. Ferraro describe what happens for a patient undergoing radiation.

Daniel Ferraro, MD, PhD

Daniel Ferraro, MD, PhD

Daniel Ferraro MD, PhD, completed his medical training at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine and completed specialty training in Radiation Oncology at the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University in Saint Louis. He has authored multiple publications in the development of novel therapies for cancer as well as the methodology of cancer treatment with radiation.