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Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is the use of high doses of radiation, either internal or external, to kill cancer cells in the body. It is one of the main treatments for many types of cancer.


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What it is

Radiation therapy is the use of high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells in the body. The radiation damages the DNA of fast-growing cells, which includes cancer cells, preventing them from dividing and growing, leading to cell death. It is a standard form of treating many different types of cancer and can be used in combination with surgery, chemotherapy and other forms of treatment.

More than half of cancer patients will undergo some sort radiation therapy. It can be used as a stand-alone treatment or in combination with other therapies, shrinking tumors before surgery or chemotherapy or destroying any cancer cells that might remain after other treatments.

Radiation therapy requires careful planning to ensure the tumor is targeted with the least amount of impact on surrounding tissues.

There are three main types of radiation therapy, external radiation, internal radiation therapy and intraoperative.

  • External radiation is the most common form. In this method, high-powered X-rays, particles or proton beams are aimed directly at the tumor from outside of the body.
  • In internal radiation, a radioactive substance is placed in the body to kill cancer cells. One method is to place radioactive seeds directly into or near the tumor. Another method involves ingesting a radioactive liquid or pill or through an IV.
  • Intraoperative radiation is the use of radiation during surgery to remove a tumor. This is typically used for tumors that have not spread or to treat an area where microscopic tumor cells may remain after surgical removal of a larger tumor.

Good for treating

The Allina Health Radiation Oncology Center embraces the use of cutting-edge treatment techniques by adopting new technology early and aggressively. The type of radiation therapy you receive will depend on your type of cancer, its location, the radiation dose needed and your general health. Treatments offered include:

  • 3-D conformal radiation therapy -- This external treatment has the ability to identify in three-dimensions the tumor and surrounding normal tissues and customize the radiation beams.
  • brachytherapy -- This treatment applies radiation internally directly on 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 - the recurrence of a narrowing of blood vessels. This treatment is delivered in partnership with cardiologists at Minneapolis Heart Institute®.
  • CT simulation -- The Radiation Oncology Center has a dedicated radiation oncology CT scanner for precise treatment planning.
  • external beam therapy – External beam radiation uses machines called linear accelerators. These machines produce ionizing radiation that destroy cancer cells by target a defined area surrounding the tumor.
  • fractionated stereotactic radiation therapy (SRT)
  • image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT) -- This type of imaging occurs prior to 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) -- In this form of external treatment, the radiation beam intensity is altered to 'paint' with radiation doses for the desired concentration.
  • radium 223 -- This treatment is used for patients with bone metastases, which are tumors that result from cancer cells entering bones. Patients receive this treatment once a month for six months.
  • respiratory gating -- Respiratory gating is a treatment delivery method where the breathing cycle is monitored in order to spare critical organ structures from the treatment beam. Not all patients are candidates for this treatment delivery, as not all patients organs move during a breathing cycle.
  • stereotactic ablative radiotherapy (SABR) -- This treatment method delivers radiation to isolated tumors in the body over a shorter course of treatment, reducing radiation exposure to nearby structures.
  • stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) -- This is a one-time, noninvasive procedure that administers precise, high doses of radiation to cranial abnormalities. Stereotactic radiosurgery uses computer imaging to precisely locate the lesions in three dimensions.
  • 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.

Good to know

Side effects

Radiation therapy side effects can include:

  • skin problems, including dryness, itching, blistering, peeling or sunburn
  • fatigue
  • hair loss on the part of the body exposed to the radiation
  • lymphedema
  • site-specific effects:
    • head and neck:
      • headache
      • dry mouth
      • mouth and gum sores
      • difficulty swallowing
      • jaw stiffness
      • blurry vision
      • nausea
      • tooth decay
    • chest
      • difficulty swallowing
      • shortness of breath
      • breast or nipple soreness
      • shoulder stiffness
      • cough, fever, radiation pneumonitis
      • radiation fibrosis
    • abdomen
      • nausea and vomiting
      • diarrhea
    • pelvis
      • diarrhea
      • rectal bleeding
      • incontinence
      • bladder irritation
      • sexual and fertility problems
      • reduces sperm counts and sperm activities
      • changes in menstruation
      • vaginal itching, burning and dryness

If you experience side effects from your radiation therapy, our care team will work with you to manage the symptoms. Once side effects have been identified, a plan of care will be determined for treating the side effects.

Treatment may incorporate medications and/or referrals to other services available such as nutrition consultation and occupational or physical therapy.

Related links

Source: Allina Health Cancer Care
Reviewed by: Allina Health Cancer Care

First published: 6/17/2019
Last reviewed: 6/17/2019

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