Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink cancers. Radiotherapy is regarded as local therapy because it only destroys cancer cells in the treated area. The radiation field is the area of the body which is being treated.
What is involved in radiotherapy?
Before you start radiotherapy, the radiotherapist (doctor who specialises in treating people with radiotherapy) will carefully calculate the correct dose of radiation therapy for you. The areas of your body that need to be treated will be marked with tiny ink dots on your skin using a special pen.
Radiotherapy is usually given in small doses (also known as fractions) each week day (Monday to Friday) over a few weeks in the radiotherapy department of the hospital. You do not need to be admitted to hospital for this treatment, but if you live far away you may need to organise some accommodation for this time. The social worker or nurses can assist you with this.
When you are having radiotherapy you usually lie on a table underneath the radiotherapy machine which delivers the planned dose of radiation. Important structures like your heart and lungs are shielded as much as possible to ensure that they are not affected by the treatment given. Radiotherapy is painless. In fact you do not see or feel anything during the actual treatment. You will however need to stay perfectly still for a few minutes while the treatment is taking place. You might like to bring along some music to help you relax.
Side effects of radiotherapy
Radiotherapy can cause similar side effects to those caused by chemotherapy including nausea and vomiting, hair loss and fatigue. In general, however, the type of side effects seen with radiotherapy depends on the area of the body which has been treated. For example radiotherapy to the abdomen is more likely to cause nausea and vomiting while hair loss is usually confined to the areas of the body being treated.
Radiotherapy can cause a reddening of the skin, which may also flake and become itchy. The nursing staff at the radiotherapy department will advise you on how to care for your skin while you are having treatment. Gentle washing (avoiding perfumed products like scented soaps) and drying your skin by patting rather than rubbing is often recommended. You should also avoid any creams or moisturisers that contain traces of metals. Check with the radiotherapy staff if you are unsure. Also, you should avoid direct sunlight on any area of skin that has received radiotherapy, even after the therapy has finished.
Parotitis is an inflammation of the saliva-producing glands in the mouth, which can occur if these glands are within the treatment field used. These include the parotid or submandibular glands, which are situated at the top of the jaw line, in front of the ears. Parotitis causes dryness of the mouth and jaw pain, which usually settles down within a few days, once the inflammation subsides.