What to Expect during Radiation Therapy

by Brittany McNabb

Radiation therapy is a common cancer treatment for people with cancer. There are two main types of radiation: external radiation (stereotatic radiation and proton beam) and internal radiation. To learn more about different types of radiation visit the American Cancer Society's guide on Understanding Radiation Therapy.

Johnny Blue Radiation Room

[Johnnyblue in his radiation room.]

Many do not know what to expect at radiation until they are in the radiation room, possibly overwhelmed with machinery and questions. Here are some firsthand insights from WhatNexters that have been through radiation including what to expect and pictures of their radiation masks. Perhaps these images and reading their stories will make you feel comfortable; keep in mind that the experiences and side effects are different for everyone. 

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. 

Everyone has different reactions to radiation treatment; during your time with radiation you may not be able to do the same things you used to. Play it by ear and see how you feel about driving, work, and getting around town. For example, some say that they could not drive themselves to and from treatment but this is not true for everyone. Learn your limits and act accordingly. 

"I did not drive myself to or from treatment, and I am thankful I did not. I would advise anyone starting treatment to have someone drive them until they know how it is going to make them feel." - ritafaystageIV

If  you need help finding rides to and from treatment you might find the American Cancer Society's Road to Recovery program a helpful resource.

Be ready to ask your doctor how to treat burns or side effects on the skin.

Ask Your Doctor Ss 164965940

"In the first two weeks of radiation I was fine. At the third week I had a few side effects. Let your doctor know about any other symptoms as soon as possible." - Asanayogini

Trust your nurses for advice on how to treat side effects of radiation.

"My best advice is to remember to always call your oncologist nurse if you have side effects. They have all the tricks and give out great advice." - myronbob

The care team administering radiation will make you as comfortable as possible. 

Sforwt In Radiation Room

[Sforwt with his radiation nurses after finishing radiation treatment.]

"The procedure itself is painless and it is very quick. The technicians that worked there were great and they made me comfortable. The techs that will be working with you are professionals and know how you feel. I got so used to them that for five weeks it was just women and it was a comfortable experience. I tend to laugh and make jokes when I'm nervous. I was not expecting a male to walk in on my last week. I was reluctant to take my top off and In a joking way I said "Hey anybody notice that there's a man in the room?" The girls look around and then they saw him and said "Oh, him, he's just one of the girls" and we all started laughing. He was just as wonderful with me as the others. So go forward and take one step at a time." - Coolgm

You lay on a table and a machine moves above you making some noise.

Jenny Miller Radiation Room

[Picture from JennyMiller of her radiation machine.]

"They put you on a table and a big machine circulates around you every so often making quiet zapping noises." - CrazyHarry

"It's just a big machine that turns around you, nothing hurts. I had 3 dots tattooed on which, one stung but the other two didn't. They are to help with placement on the machine. It takes about 5 to 10 minutes and you are done. They will give you lotions to use if the skin becomes tender. Don't be afraid to ask." - JeanB

You may wear a radiation mask.

If you are having radiation to the head area, you may wear a radiation mask. Here are some pictures of WhatNexter's masks.

Mlzjlll Radiation Mask

[Mizjill getting fitted with radiation mask.]

Johnny Blue Laster Targeting Radiation Mask

[Johnnyblue with radiation targeting mask.]

Keep a journal of your side effects and look for patterns.

Keep A Cancer Notebook

"I found that keeping a journal and tracking each side effect, the timing, the intensity, what factors may have contributed to making it more severe was so helpful. I did find that many of the side effects fell into a pattern so I could be proactive to off-set them." - IKickedIt

Beware of dehydration.

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"One side effect that took me down during radiation was dehydration. I had only recently gotten my temporary ileostomy and I didn't realize that my output shouldn't be so watery. But I have heard others say they struggled with dehydration during radiation." - Schtroumpfette

If you don't experience fatigue right away, you will probably experience it a few weeks in.

Home Recovery From Mastectomy

"The biggest side effect for me was fatigue. At first I felt nothing, but fatigue accumulated. So toward the end I got more tired than usual. Keep up some exercise, but get lots of rest as well." - debco148

Expect and ask about radiation simulation, preliminary scans, and radiation tattoos.

"They prepared me for radiation (it has to be very precise) with three tiny tattoos which I understood was to measure and mark the area. I laid very still and went through a machine like a CAT scan and it was over in a few minutes." - created

Radiation itself may only take a few minutes.

Many WhatNexters say that it takes more time to drive to and from treatment than the treatment. One WhatNexter said that it took longer to get situated on the table than the actual radiation. 

Going through radiation takes determination and courage - stick with it.

Finished Radiation Certificate

"It may start out okay, but I was worn down by the time I was through. When you feel your worst, just think about the goal (which is to win the game!). My mother cheered me on when I wanted to quit radiation after the second week. So, put on your game face and power through." - cam32505

What would you tell someone that is about to undergo radiation treatment?

Does anyone have advice for someone starting radiation or chemotherapy?

What should I expect from radiation on the tongue and neck?

What was your experience with external radiation?

What questions should I ask my doctor before radiation treatment?

What is radiation like?

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