What to know about external beam radiation therapy

By Terri Bentler, BSN, RN, OCN, CN-BN May 04, 2017

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment using radiation to stop cancer cells from growing and spreading. You may be familiar with other uses of radiation such as X-rays or CT scans. Sunlight also exposes us to electromagnetic radiation through ultraviolet rays and infrared rays. A person can also experience environmental exposures to radiation — some radioactive minerals produce radioactive gas during decomposition.

With cancer, external beam radiation therapy is as treatment to cure or relieve symptoms. If curing the cancer is not possible, shrinking the area of disease often provides relief from pain, better organ function or decreased pressure on surrounding tissues and organs.

Radiation oncologists are specially trained physicians who guide a care team of physicists , dosimetrists, radiation therapists and nurses to plan the exact amount, frequency and duration of radiation necessary for your needs. All team members work together and are familiar with your care plan to provide the best care. This planning takes time, often 10 to 14 days, to customize your treatment. A complicated computer plan is programmed into the machine to deliver your precise, unique treatment. The planning period is often the most difficult time for patients. Some good diversion tactics may be visiting with family or friends, journaling your feelings, being in nature, work or any other activity that takes your mind away from the waiting.

External beam radiation is often described as “shining a flashlight” on the affected area. It is a localized treatment, unlike systemic therapies, such as chemotherapy and other medications given orally or by infusion, which affect the whole body. You will receive therapy five days each week for a short period each day. The number of days or weeks you need therapy is determined by the type of cancer and purpose of the treatment. Since the “beam” of radiation is directed to one area, the side effects of the therapy are mostly localized as well. Side effects depend on the area of the body being treated and the dose received. Some side effects are diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, skin redness or blisters, sexual and fertility changes and fatigue. These side effects improve a few weeks after therapy is complete. Late effects of radiation therapy include developing a different cancer, swelling in the lymph system and problems of the joints. Your radiation oncologist will discuss all the benefits and risks with you before you begin therapy.

You may feel overwhelmed by the number of days you will receive radiation therapy. It is a challenge to visit the clinic five days each week, over a number of weeks. Your oncologist and the rest of your care team have your best interests at heart and will work with you to provide a supportive, understanding environment. Let them know of any questions or concerns and talk openly about the side effects you may experience. Believe it or not, before you know it, the treatments are done, and you will miss your daily visit with your radiation oncology family.