Updated 28 October 2019

Experiencing radiotherapy: what to know

SPONSORED: In this article ICON oncology takes a closer look at radiotherapy and the experience thereof.

The three most common cancer treatments are surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
These may be applied on their own or in combination.

Receiving radiation therapy 

Radiotherapy is a common form of therapeutic treatment that uses ionising radiation to eradicate or damage cancer cells. While the ideal situation is to cut the cancer out, it may be attached to the blood vessels and lymphatic tissue, which makes it impossible to cut out entirely. 

In this case, radiotherapy – which is a non-invasive treatment – might be recommended.

Radiotherapy takes place at a special radiotherapy unit. The full process takes less than 10 minutes – from walking in and out of the door. The number of visits you need will be determined by the type, grade and stage of your cancer, as well as your performance status – in other words how well you are.

You might only require a single treatment – this is often recommended if you have bone metastasis – or you can undertake treatment over the course of a few weeks. 

In good hands

Your radiation team includes your radiation oncologist, a medical physicist and radiation therapists, also called radiotherapists. The radiation oncologist will evaluate your disease and prescribe the relevant dosage and fractionation, which is the number of treatments you will receive.

During treatment planning, the target volume is delineated or drawn down by the radiation oncologist. Plans approved by the radiation oncologist will then be checked by the medical physicist to ensure that all calculations are correct and that treatment can go ahead. 

An on-site social worker will also be there to offer you and your family support during and after your radiotherapy. 

Radiotherapy in action

Radiation is much like UV rays, or microwaves; you don’t feel it physically but you do experience its cumulative effect. The sensation is also like being burned by the sun; the skin will be sensitive and might peel off, and if you have lighter skin you might experience slight discolouration.

Areas that have been exposed to the sun – such as the neck and upper chest area – tend to react more aggressively to the treatment. The treatment is administered in many different ways, and combinations may be used for a single patient. ICON radiotherapy practices offer treatments that include external beam radiation therapy, stereotactic radiotherapy, stereotactic body radiation therapy, intensity modulated radiation therapy, volumetric modulated arc therapy and brachytherapy. 

Once you’ve had your treatment – either a single or multiple doses – the radiation gets to work at a cellular level and you carry on benefiting from the treatment long after the procedure was done. You're also advised to stay out of the sun, only to wash with soap and water, and while showering, to just let the water run over your skin without any rubbing. 

Treatment intent can be either curative or palliative. Curative treatment aims to eradicate the cancer completely, whereas palliative treatment aims to improve quality of life by treating symptoms.

Treatment intent is decided by the radiation oncologist and is based on factors such as stage, site and type of cancer. 

Possible side effects

During radiation therapy patients often find that their symptoms worsen before they begin to improve. The radiation therapists are trained to assist you on a daily basis with any problems you might experience. They can offer you considerable advice and, if unable to answer your questions, will arrange for you to see your radiation oncologist or other healthcare staff as needed.

Side effects of the therapy are site-dependent and may or may not occur. You may become more tired than usual. Accept any offers of help from your friends and family and rest as much as you can. Some degree of hair loss can also be expected. This may take several weeks before it becomes noticeable. The hair loss is variable and your radiation oncologist will tell you what you can expect.

Although most of the radiation dose is delivered deep within the body, there are often skin reactions ranging from slight redness of the skin to peeling, as with sunburn. These reactions are temporary and the skin heals well after radiation therapy, usually within a few weeks. 

Empower yourself with information

Once you have been diagnosed with cancer, it is really important to take responsibility for managing your disease. While oncologists, surgeons and radiologists are there to help you, it is advisable to understand how the process works. Simply relying on the experts isn’t enough; you should play a proactive role in your own cancer journey.

Proactive participation includes managing your lifestyle and eating healthily. Being diagnosed with cancer is indeed a shock and a difficult journey. But by taking part in your treatment, you will feel empowered and secure in the knowledge that you're receiving the best care for your cancer type and stage. 

For more information about Icon visit ICON.


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CANSA’s purpose is to lead the fight against cancer in South Africa. Its mission is to be the preferred non-profit organisation that enables research, educates the public and provides support to all people affected by cancer. Questions are answered by CANSA’s Head of Health Professor Michael Herbst. For more information, visit

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