Radiation therapy: 11 questions my patients ask

As a radiation oncologist at MD Anderson in The
, I get a lot of questions from my patients about how radiation therapy will affect them, what side effects they can expect and whether the
treatment is safe.

Here are my answers to some of their frequently asked questions.

Do I need to bring someone with me for each treatment?

Unless you feel ill, you can typically drive yourself to treatment.
In fact, many patients are able to work full-time during their treatment.

When will I start experiencing side effects?

Side effects depend on where you receive the radiation therapy, the
dose given, whether you also receive chemotherapy and, if so, how much
and what type. They usually begin by the second or third week of
treatment and may last for several weeks after the final radiation
treatment. In rare instances, there are serious side effects. Ask your
doctor about the specific side effects that you may encounter and any
follow-up questions about how to deal with them.

Will I lose my hair?

While chemotherapy causes hair loss throughout the body, that’s not the
case for radiation therapy. Hair loss is associated with the radiation
beam entrance and exit areas. Hair loss can be seen with radiation to
the brain, head and neck, as well as the lower pelvis. Hair loss
caused by radiation therapy may be temporary or permanent. At lower
doses, hair loss is often temporary; at higher doses, hair loss can be permanent. 

Am I radioactive?

You’re radioactive only if you’re undergoing treatment with a
radiation seed implant. If you are hospitalized for this procedure,
you’ll be in a protected room to limit your exposure to other people.
This is something your doctor will talk to you beforehand.

Will I glow in the dark?

No. Even with permanent radiative seed implants, patients do not glow.

Will I set off airport security alarms after radiation treatment?


Can I be around children and pregnant women?

Yes — unless you have just received a permanent radioactive seed
implant. If that’s the case, you’ll only have the implant for a few
days and should discuss this with your doctor.

Will I get a different cancer in the area where I’m receiving radiation?

The risk of developing a second cancer due to radiation therapy is
very low. The benefits of your recommended treatment far outweigh the
small risk that your radiation treatment could cause another cancer
later in life.

Can I receive radiation in the same area if I have a cancer
recurrence or secondary cancer?

With our newer technologies, we are able to carefully re-irradiate
the same area in some situations. This is something you should discuss
with your doctor.

Will I feel the radiation treatment?

No, radiation therapy uses high-energy waves, like those used with
an X-ray. They are invisible and painless.

Am I more susceptible to infection with radiation?

Generally, cancer patients who are treated with radiation therapy
alone aren’t more likely to develop infections.

Pamela J. Schlembach is professor of Radiation
Oncology at MD Anderson in The Woodlands.

Request an appointment at MD
or by calling 1-877-632-6789.