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Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) is a cancer treatment that uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and stop them from spreading. At low doses, radiation is used as an X-ray to see inside your body and take pictures, such as X-rays of your teeth or broken bones. Radiation used in cancer treatment works in much the same way, except that it is given at higher doses.

Radiation therapy can be external beam (when a machine outside your body aims radiation at cancer cells) or internal (when radiation is put inside your body, in or near the cancer cells). Sometimes people get both forms of radiation therapy.

Many people with cancer need radiation therapy. In fact, more than half (about 60 percent) of people with cancer get radiation therapy. Sometimes, radiation therapy is the only kind of cancer treatment people need.

Given in high doses, radiation kills or slows the growth of cancer cells. Radiation therapy is used to:

  • Treat cancer — Radiation can be used to cure, stop or slow the growth of cancer.
  • Reduce symptoms — When a cure is not possible, radiation may be used to shrink cancer tumors in order to reduce pressure. Radiation therapy used in this way can treat problems such as pain, or it can prevent problems such as blindness or loss of bowel and bladder control.

Radiation therapy does not kill cancer cells right away. It takes days or weeks of treatment before cancer cells start to die. Then, cancer cells keep dying for weeks or months after radiation therapy ends.

Radiation therapy does not hurt while it is being given. The side effects that people may get from radiation therapy can cause pain or discomfort.

Radiation therapy is often used with other cancer treatments:

Radiation therapy and surgery. Radiation may be given before, during or after surgery. Doctors may use radiation to shrink the size of the cancer before surgery, or they may use radiation after surgery to kill any cancer cells that remain. Sometimes, radiation therapy is given during surgery so that it goes straight to the cancer without passing through the skin — known as “intraoperative radiation.”

Radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Radiation may be given before, during or after chemotherapy. Before or during chemotherapy, radiation therapy can shrink the cancer so that chemotherapy works better. Sometimes, chemotherapy is given to help radiation therapy work better. After chemotherapy, radiation therapy can be used to kill remaining cancer cells.

Many people can work full-time during treatment; others only work part-time or not at all. How much you are able to work depends on how you feel. Ask your doctor or nurse what you may expect based on the treatment you are getting. You are likely to feel well enough to work when you start radiation therapy. As time goes on, don’t be surprised if you are more tired, have less energy or feel weak. Once you finish your treatment, it may take a few weeks or months to feel better. You may get to a point during your radiation therapy when you feel too sick to work. Talk with your employer to find out if you can go on medical leave, and make sure that your health insurance will pay for treatment during your time off.

Once you have finished radiation therapy, you will need follow-up care for the rest of your life. During these checkups, your doctor will see how well the radiation therapy worked, check for other signs of cancer, look for late side effects and talk with you about your treatment and care. Your physician will:

  • Examine you and review how you have been feeling and may prescribe medicine or suggest other ways to treat any side effects you may have.
  • Order lab and imaging tests that may include blood tests, X-rays or CT, MRI or PET scans.
  • Discuss any further treatments, answer your questions and respond to your concerns.

Due to your treatment experience, you may be more aware of your body and how you feel each day. Pay attention to changes in your body. Let your doctor or nurse know if you have:

  • A pain that does not go away.
  • New lumps, bumps, swellings, rashes, bruises or bleeding.
  • Appetite changes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation or weight loss that you cannot explain.
  • Fever, cough or hoarseness that does not go away.
  • Any other symptoms that worry you.
  • Make a list of questions and issues you want to discuss with your doctor or nurse. Be sure to bring this list to your follow-up visits.