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Radiation treatment uses high-energy rays or radioactive material to kill cancer cells or to keep them from growing. In external beam treatment, a beam of radiation is aimed at the tumour from outside the body. This treatment is usually given 5 days a week, over the course of a few weeks. There may be other treatment schedules. For example, some schedules have treatments 2 times a day. How long your treatment lasts depends on the type of cancer you have.
One common form of external beam treatment is intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). IMRT uses a precise amount of radiation that is carefully targeted at a tumour. This limits radiation exposure to healthy tissue. The treatment itself is painless.
External beam radiation treatment can cause some side effects. It can make the skin near the treated area sore. The skin may turn red or dark, like a burn. The treatment can cause fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Areas inside your body can get sore. For instance, your throat may hurt if the radiation is aimed there. Most side effects usually go away after treatment ends. But you may feel very tired for 4 to 6 weeks after your last treatment. Talk to your doctor about ways to treat the side effects. Skin changes may not go away.
When you find out that you have cancer, you may feel many emotions and may need some help coping. Seek out family, friends, and counsellors for support. You also can do things at home to make yourself feel better while you go through treatment. Your doctor will tell you what activities you can do during treatment. Call the Canadian Cancer Society (1-888-939-3333) or visit its website at www.cancer.ca for more information.
External beam treatment takes only a few minutes. But allow 30 minutes to an hour for each visit.
Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.
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Current as of: March 1, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Joseph O'Donnell MD - Hematology, Oncology
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