Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy radiation (X-rays) to shrink or destroy cancer cells, prevent cancer cells from spreading, treat symptoms such as pain or reduce the risk of cancer coming back at the treatment site. Radiation damages the DNA of fast-growing cells, which includes cancer cells, preventing them from dividing and growing. There are many different types of radiation therapy. You and your health care team will decide together which type is right for you.
Allina Health is at the forefront of radiation therapy. We adopt new technologies early and aggressively to make sure that we provide our patients with the most effective, most advanced radiation therapies to treat cancer. Our radiation oncologists and cancer care team have specialized expertise and training—along with a fierce commitment to you and your health. They work with you and with other providers across Allina Health, to create and deliver a treatment plan that’s unique to your needs.
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Radiation therapy at Allina Health
Radiation therapy is a common way to treat cancer. It can be used along with surgery, chemotherapy and other kinds of treatment. More than half of people receiving treatment for cancer will have some type of radiation therapy.
Radiation therapy is a powerful tool in treating your cancer—a tool that works alongside other kinds of care and support to improve your health. At Allina Health, that support includes a dedicated team of health care providers, a nurse navigator to guide you through every step of your treatment and tools like the online Allina Health account to help you track appointments, view test results and much more.
Radiation therapy can be difficult, and it may have side effects that are painful or uncomfortable. Allina Health surrounds you with compassionate, expert caregivers throughout your treatment so you always feel informed, respected and in control of your care.
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Types of radiation therapy
There are two main types of radiation therapy:
1. External beam radiation therapy. This is the most common type of radiation therapy. It uses machines called linear accelerators. These machines produce ionizing radiation that destroys cancer cells by targeting a defined area surrounding the tumor. The following are different types of external beam radiation therapy.
- Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT). This type of imaging happens before daily treatment and matches structures in the body exactly with the CT images that were taken for treatment planning and sets the radiation therapy target at each treatment.
- Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). This treatment can focus a higher dose of radiation on a specific area. It uses hundreds of tiny pencil-thin radiation beams which strike the tumor at different angles. (Think of the beams as being spread or “painted” over the tumor.) This means the tumor gets more radiation than the surrounding healthy tissue.
- 3-D conformal radiation therapy. This treatment uses a computer to create a 3-D picture of a tumor. This allows the highest possible dose of radiation to be given to the tumor, while sparing the normal tissue as much as possible.
- Respiratory gating. Respiratory gating is a treatment delivery method where the breathing cycle is monitored in order to reduce exposure to other organs from the treatment beam. This method is not right for everyone, as some people’s organs do not move during a breathing cycle.
- Stereotactic ablative radiotherapy (SABR). This treatment uses a machine called a linear accelerator (LINAC) is used to give the radiation. These precise, high-dose radiation treatments are generally used to treat small tumors.
- Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS). This treatment used to treat brain tumors and vein lesions. A machine called a linear accelerator (LINAC) is used to give the radiation. Radiosurgery uses a “pencil-like” beam of high dose radiation to destroy the tumor or lesion.
- Volumetric arc therapy (VMAT). Some tumors can be treated with Rapid Arc treatment delivery where IMRT treatment is delivered in single or multiple arc rotations of the machine around the patient.
2. Internal radiation therapy. A radioactive substance is placed in the body to destroy cancer cells. One method is to place radioactive seeds (small implants of radioactive medicine) directly into or near the tumor. Another method involves swallowing a radioactive liquid or pill or injecting radioactive medicine through an intravenous (IV) line. The following are different types of internal radiation therapy.
Brachytherapy. This treatment applies radiation internally directly to the tumor location. Brachytherapy delivers a higher, more concentrated dose of radiation to help destroy the main mass of tumor cells.
Cardiac brachytherapy. This treatment is used for the prevention of restenosis, which is the recurrence of a narrowing of blood vessels.
Radium 223. This treatment is used for patients with bone metastases, which are tumors that result from cancer cells entering bones.
How to prepare for radiation therapy
You and your cancer care team will talk about how to prepare for radiation therapy and create a plan for your specific needs. Here are some common ways to prepare:
Know what to wear.
Wear clothes made of soft fabric, such as cotton, which are easy to take off, since you may need to change into a hospital gown or show the area that is being treated.
Do not wear clothes that are tight or close fitting near your treatment area. Do not wear jewelry, powder, lotion or deodorant on or near your treatment area.
Plan for possible side effects. It is common to have fatigue or nausea after your treatment. So, plan ahead for work, household chores, meal preparation, childcare and more.
Maintain a healthy diet. On treatment days, make sure you are hydrated and eat nutritious foods that you can tolerate well.
Arrange for someone to drive you home. You may feel tired after treatment.
Get plenty of rest.
Learn more about side effects of radiation treatment.
What to expect with radiation therapy
No matter what your treatment, your health care team will watch you closely and help you get through the treatments feeling the best you can, with the least amount of side effects.
External radiation treatments
The radiation therapy treatments are painless.
Each treatment takes about 30 minutes.
You will need 2 to 9 weeks of radiation.
You will receive radiation therapy 5 days a week, Monday through Friday.
The radiation therapist will ask you to remove your clothing or bandages in the treatment area.
The therapist will position you on the treatment table.
You will be alone during the treatment. The therapist will watch you closely on a TV monitor and listen to you on an intercom.
The treatment machine may give you radiation from different angles.
Internal radiation treatments
Radioactive medicine will be put into the catheter or applicator. The medicine may be kept in place for a few minutes, for several days, or it may stay in your body permanently.
What to expect after radiation therapy
Many people have only mild side effects, while others have more severe side effects or have pain after radiation therapy. Some side effects—like fatigue (being tired) and skin irritation—go away within a few weeks of treatment. Others go away within about two months of treatment. And some may continue for longer, as your body regrows cells damaged by the radiation.
Your radiation oncologist will talk with you about possible radiation side effects, and your health care team will help you take precautions after radiation therapy. Plus, Allina Health offers many ways to help you manage side effects and improve wellness—from massage therapy and acupuncture to support groups and mental health resources.
Cost of radiation therapy
The cost of radiation therapy depends on the type of radiation used, the number of doses, how long and how often you have treatment and many other factors.
Does insurance cover radiation therapy? Insurance coverage is different from plan to plan. To learn about your specific coverage, contact your insurance provider before you start your treatment.
Does Medicare cover radiation therapy? Medicare covers radiation therapy if you have cancer. Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) covers it if you are hospitalized for treatment. Medicare Part B (medical insurance) covers it when you’re a patient in a doctor’s office or freestanding clinic. In both cases, you may be responsible for paying part of the cost.
Does Medicaid cover radiation therapy? Medicaid benefits are different from state to state. Check with your state’s program and with your health care provider to find out what is and isn’t covered.
How long does it take for radiation therapy to work?
In some cases, cancer may respond to treatment very quickly—in a matter of days. But for most people and most cancers, radiation therapy does not immediately destroy cancer cells. It may be weeks or months before you see any change. And in some cases, radiation therapy does not have an effect on the cancer at all.
In some cases, you may feel your cancer symptoms (if you have any) becoming less severe. But the main way to tell if radiation therapy is working is through follow-up scans and testing with your health care team.
What is the success rate of radiation therapy?
The success of radiation therapy depends on the type of cancer you have, how advanced the cancer is and many other factors. But there is clear evidence that radiation therapy can dramatically improve survival rates in cancers such as prostate, breast, bowel, uterine, head and neck, and many others.
Source: Allina Health Cancer Institute
Reviewed by: Allina Health Cancer Institute
First published: 6/17/2019
Last reviewed: 10/27/2021