5 Things to Expect from External-Beam Radiation Therapy

Your doctor may prescribe external-beam radiation therapy to treat your cancer. External-beam radiation therapy is radiation that is applied to the outside of the body to treat tumors on the inside of the body. It can be used on its own as a treatment for cancer, as well as in conjunction with chemotherapy and/or surgery.

Here are five things you can expect during your visits as you begin treatment with external beam radiation:

1. The Right Treatment for You

Your first appointment will include a meeting with your radiation oncologist—a doctor who specializes in the use of radiation to treat cancer. At that meeting, the radiation oncologist will review your most recent scans and tests to determine the appropriate course of treatment, including which technology will be used to deliver that treatment, depending on the location and characteristics of your tumor.

“There are numerous technologies that can be used to destroy tumors or alleviate pain symptoms,” says Dwight E. Heron, MD, MBA, FACRO, FACR, director of Radiation Oncology Services at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. “At UPMC Hillman, we have the newest technologies and the latest techniques to treat tumors with radiation. These machines target the tumor with pinpoint accuracy while sparing the noncancerous tissue around it.”

2. Additional Imaging

Your radiation oncologist will most likely order additional imaging, such as a CT, MRI or PET scan, to get the latest information about the location and size of your tumor. These scans usually are done on a separate visit from the first meeting with your radiation oncologist. These images will be used by the radiation oncology team to plan your treatment.

Dr. Dwight Heron of UPMC

Dwight E. Heron, MD, MBA, FACRO, FACR, director of Radiation Oncology Services at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

 

3. Immobilization Techniques

Depending on the location of your tumor, the radiation oncology team will determine the right immobilization technique to keep you in position during your treatments. For brain, head and neck tumors, you may be fitted for a mask. Body molds may be made for tumors in other areas. A cradle mold may be used to prevent movement of the hips or legs.

“Making the molds is like having a dental mold made,” says Annette Quinn, radiation oncology clinical research manager. “A cradle or bag made of form-fitting material is used for the patient to lie on or put a limb into. The material sets up around the body part, creating a mold that will replicate the patient’s exact position in the device. Marks with ink also may be used on the skin or on the molds or masks to help pinpoint the delivery of the radiation.”

4. No Discomfort

No matter where the radiation is being targeted, you should not feel any discomfort during your treatment. “Many patients often expect to feel something—heat, a tingling sensation, pain—but that is not the case,” says Dr. Heron. “You will be awake, but your radiation therapy treatment will feel just like getting an x-ray—which is to say you won’t feel the radiation at all.”

5. Return Visits

You will be returning to the radiation therapy center—a little or a lot—depending on which technique is being used. “For stereotactic radiosurgery or SRS, a type of bloodless surgery that uses radiation to attack cancer cells, your treatment will be delivered in no more than five sessions at prescribed intervals. Each session will take about a half-hour to an hour,” explains Dr. Heron.

“For conventional radiation therapy, you will be coming for treatments five days a week for five to six weeks. Each appointment will take about 30 minutes, but only about 10 minutes of that time is for the treatment itself.”

No matter what device or technique is used to deliver your treatments, a key benefit of UPMC Hillman is its multidisciplinary approach to cancer care. From patient navigation to nutrition services, pain management to survivorship support, Hillman has amenities in place at all points along your cancer journey. “We truly have all the facets in place to make us a one-stop shop for your cancer treatment, from start to finish,” adds Dr. Heron.

 

 


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