Common questions about radiation therapy
Radiation therapy (also known as radiotherapy) is one of the main treatments for cancer.
Learn more about:
- Where will I have treatment?
- How many treatments will I have?
- How much does radiation therapy cost?
- Will I be able to work or exercise during radiation therapy?
- Can I have radiation therapy if I’m pregnant?
- How will I know the treatment has worked?
- What are the steps in radiation therapy?
- How do I prepare for radiation therapy?
- Which health professionals will you see?
- How can you make the best treatment decisions?
Radiation therapy is usually given in the radiation oncology department of a hospital or in a treatment centre. This may be in the public or private health system.
Most people have radiation therapy as an outpatient. This means you do not stay in hospital, but travel to the hospital or treatment centre for each session. It’s a good idea to think about how you will get to the radiation therapy sessions.
For some types of internal radiation therapy, you may need to stay in hospital overnight or for a few days.
If you are having radiation therapy with the aim of making the cancer go away, you may have treatment for 5–7 weeks. Usually treatment is once a day, Monday to Friday, but sometimes it’s given twice a day.
Your doctor will tell you how many treatments you will have. If you live a long way from the treatment centre and you’re having a short course, your treatment may be given two or three times per week.
If you receive radiation therapy as an outpatient in a public hospital, Medicare pays for your treatment. Medicare also covers some of the cost of radiation therapy in private clinics, but you may have to pay the difference between the cost of treatment and the Medicare rebate (gap payment).
Private health insurance does not usually cover radiation therapy, as it’s considered an outpatient treatment.
Before treatment starts, ask your provider for a written quote that shows what you will have to pay.
You may feel well enough to continue working and doing your usual activities when you first start radiation therapy. As you have more sessions, you may feel more tired or lack energy.
Whether you will be able to work depends on:
- the type of radiation therapy you have
- how the treatment makes you feel
- the type of work you do.
Ask your treatment team if they offer very early or late appointments so that you can fit your treatment appointments around your work.
Let your employer know about how much time you are likely to need off work. Explain that it is hard to predict how radiation therapy will affect you, and discuss the options of flexible hours, modified duties or taking leave.
Your treatment team will encourage you to be as active as possible as this can help you feel better. Research shows that exercise can help manage ongoing effects of radiation therapy, including fatigue.
The radiation therapy department was able to schedule sessions for first thing in the morning to fit in with my work schedule. The sessions were really quick and I was able to drive straight to work afterwards. As a working mum, being able to continue going to work was so beneficial. Not only was it important to keep my mind busy, but having the support of my colleagues was invaluable.Annie
You probably won’t be able to have radiation therapy if you are pregnant, as radiation can harm a developing baby. It’s also important that you don’t become pregnant during the course of treatment. If at any time you suspect you may be pregnant, it is important to tell your doctor. If you are breastfeeding, ask your doctor whether it is safe to keep breastfeeding while you’re having radiation therapy.
It is recommended that people who have radiation therapy to the pelvic area avoid getting their partner pregnant during treatment and for about six months afterwards, as radiation therapy can damage sperm. Your doctor will be able to give you more information about radiation therapy and pregnancy.
How will I know if the treatment has worked?
Because cancer cells continue to die for weeks or months after treatment ends, your radiation oncologist most likely won’t be able to tell you straightaway how the cancer is responding. After treatment finishes, you will have regular check-ups. Your radiation oncologist will do a physical examination and arrange tests or scans to check how the cancer has responded to treatment. You may not know the full benefit of having radiation therapy for some months.
If radiation therapy is given as palliative treatment, the relief of symptoms is a good sign that the treatment has worked. This may take a few days or weeks. Until then, you may need other treatments for your symptoms, for example pain medicine.
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Prof June Corry, Radiation Oncologist, GenesisCare, St Vincent’s Hospital, VIC; Prof Bryan Burmeister, Senior Radiation Oncologist, GenesisCare Fraser Coast, Hervey Bay Hospital, and The University of Queensland, QLD; Sandra Donaldson, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Jane Freeman, Accredited Practising Dietitian (Cancer specialist), Canutrition, NSW; Sinead Hanley, Consumer; David Jolly, Senior Medical Physicist, Icon Cancer Centre Richmond, VIC; Christine Kitto, Consumer; A/Prof Grace Kong, Nuclear Medicine Physician, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; A/Prof Sasha Senthi, Radiation Oncologist, The Alfred Hospital and Monash University, VIC; John Spurr, Consumer; Chris Twyford, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Radiation Oncology, Cancer Rapid Assessment Unit and Outpatients, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Gabrielle Vigar, Nurse Unit Manager, Radiation Oncology/Cancer Outpatients, Cancer Program, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA.
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