Frequently Asked Questions

What is external beam radiation therapy?

External beam radiation therapy is a non-invasive treatment for benign or malignant conditions such as cancer that involves administering a defined beam of radiation into a patient to treat a tumour site.

In the majority of external beam treatments, a machine called a linear accelerator is made to rotate around a fixed point within a tumour site and direct radiation into a patient from multiple angles. This multi-directional beam technique concentrates radiation on the tumour while limiting radiation exposure to surrounding healthy tissues and organs.

What is intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)?

Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT) is a modern form of external beam radiation therapy where the radiation beam intensity is controlled during treatment delivery. IMRT requires a linear accelerator with specialised components to modify the intensity of the radiation beam as it is directed into a patient from multiple fixed angles.

This technique precisely conforms a prescribed radiation dose to a tumour volume while limiting radiation exposure to surrounding healthy tissues and organs.

What is volumetric modulated arc therapy (VMAT / RapidArc)?

Volumetric Modulated Arc Therapy (VMAT), also known as "RapidArc", is an advancement of IMRT. Instead of applying radiation to a patient from multiple fixed angles, the radiation is delivered concurrently as the linear accelerator rotates around the patient. This technique allows for even greater beam intensity control and improved radiation dose conformity around the tumour volume, further reducing radiation exposure to surrounding healthy tissues and organs.

What is brachytherapy?

Brachytherapy is a form of radiation treatment that involves the temporary or permanent placement of radioactive material in or near a cancer site for the purpose of destroying cancer cells. At Genesis CancerCare Queensland we provide two types of brachytherapy.

  • Low dose rate brachytherapy is an internal radiation treatment that involves the permanent placement of multiple radioactive iodine 125 seeds into the prostate. These seeds emit low energy X-rays directly to the gland as they decay over a period of months. The technique is mainly used to treat low to intermediate risk early stage prostate cancer.
  • High dose rate brachytherapy is an internal radiation treatment that involves the temporary placement of a single radioactive iridium 192 source in or near a cancer site through an implanted catheter, needle or specialised applicator. The radioactive source consists of a small pellet welded to a guide wire attached to a machine. This machine can be programmed to advance and retract the wire thus moving the source into different positions. The amount of time the source spends in a fixed position depends on the radiation dose required to treat the cancer site.

    High dose rate brachytherapy is mainly used to treat aggressive gynaecological or prostate cancers.

Why is radiation used in conjunction with other treatments?

While radiation therapy can be used on its own to manage cancer, it is often better to use a combined treatment approach. This is because different treatments target cancer via different pathways and can improve the effectiveness of each other.

For example in the case of external beam radiation therapy, it may be applied before surgery to shrink a tumour thereby making it easier to remove, or given after surgery to eliminate any microscopic disease that potentially remains.

In some instances radiation therapy may also be administered with chemotherapy, where the chemotherapy acts to sensitise the cancer cells to radiation. This makes the radiation more effective in killing cancer cells and improves clinical results.

The addition of chemotherapy and/or hormone therapy also provides systemic treatment (meaning it treats the whole body) whereas radiation therapy only focuses on the primary site. This combination helps to eliminate any distant disease that may be present.

The decision to use a combined treatment approach depends on the type and stage of your disease and your general health.

What type of radiation is used in radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy usually involves the application of X-ray and/or electron radiation to treat a tumour site. In the case of external beam treatment a machine called a linear accelerator generates these two types of radiation electrically.

X-rays emitted by a linear accelerator are of a much higher energy than that used for diagnostic procedures. This means that when administered to a patient, they travel through the body with a far greater intensity, damaging cells within their path. This property is used to eliminate cancer cells.

Electron radiation produced by a linear accelerator is not able to penetrate as deeply into the body as X-rays. This property makes it useful for treating skin lesions or tumours a few centimetres below the skin surface without affecting deeper structures.

Your radiation oncologist determines the type of radiation used based on the location of your cancer site.

Will I be radioactive after receiving radiation treatment?

The answer depends on the type of treatment administered.

If you receive external beam radiation therapy the answer is no. External beam treatment involves administering radiation that is electrically generated by a machine called a linear accelerator. This machine only produces radiation when activated and does not leave any residual radioactivity in your body after treatment.

However, if you receive low dose rate brachytherapy for prostate cancer then the answer is yes. Low dose rate brachytherapy involves the permanent implantation of radioactive iodine 125 seeds inside the prostate gland. These seeds emit low energy X-rays as they decay over a period of several months. While most of the seeds radioactivity is absorbed internally, certain radiation precautions are still advised for the first few months following treatment

Are there any side effects from radiation treatment?

Side effects of radiation treatment vary from person to person and are dependent upon the treatment dose and the part of your body that is being treated. The most common side effects are fatigue and skin changes. Other side effects depend on the part of your body being treated. Your Radiation Oncologist and Nurse will explain the side effects specific to your treatment area and what you can do to look after yourself during treatment.

Is radiation treatment painful?

No. You will not feel anything when you have radiation therapy treatment. However sometimes side effects can cause some discomfort or pain.

Can I eat and/or drink before treatment?

Yes. Unless advised otherwise you can eat and drink normally while you are undergoing your radiation therapy treatments. Sometimes your doctor may ask you to change your diet to help minimise side effects. You will be informed about dietary requirements by your doctor and nursing team if needed.

What should I wear to my treatment appointments?

Wear clothes that are comfortable and easy to take off. For most treatment areas you will be given a gown to change into.

How long does treatment take?

Usually allow 20 minutes for your first treatment and 10 minutes for each appointment after that. Most of this time is spent setting you up in the correct position. The actual radiation treatment only takes a few minutes.

Should I follow a special diet during radiation treatment?

Your body uses a lot of energy during radiation treatment so it is important to include high energy and protein foods in your diet. Ask your Radiation Oncologist or Nurse if you need any help with diet or if you need referral to a dietician.

Can I exercise during treatment?

Yes. Many people find that light exercise helps them feel better during their treatment. Talk to your Radiation Oncologist about the types of exercise you can do.

Will treatment make me sick?

Radiation treatment is localised so only affects the area being treated. If your abdomen is being treated you may experience some nausea or vomiting. If your pelvis or bowel is being treated you may experience some diarrhoea. Your Radiation Oncologist and Nurse will help you manage these side effects.

Will I lose my hair?

You will only lose hair if it is in the treatment area.

How often will I have radiation treatments?

Most people have radiation treatments once a day Monday to Friday. A course of treatment can run from 1-8 weeks.

Can I go to work during my radiation treatment?

Some people continue to work during their radiation treatment depending on how well they are feeling. As the radiation treatment course progresses you may feel general fatigue and a lack of energy. Ask your Radiation Oncologist or Nurse what to expect based on the treatment you are receiving.

What can I do to help myself during therapy?

Your Radiation oncologist or nurse will give you specific advice on how to look after yourself during your radiation treatment. But there are some basic things that you should do, such as:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Eat healthy foods.
  • Take care of the skin in the treatment area.

What happens when my radiation treatment is over?

 Once you have finished your course of radiation therapy you may need to attend regular follow up appointments. Your Radiation Oncologist will discuss this with you when you are near to completing your course of treatment.

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