What to expect at treatment sessions

There will be at least two radiation therapists at each treatment session. They may ask you to change into a hospital gown before taking you into the treatment room. You will be able to leave your belongings in a secure locker. The treatment room will be in semi-darkness so the therapists can see the light beams from the treatment machine and line them up with the tattoos or marks on your body or mask.

If you are having image-guided radiation therapy, the radiation therapists will take x-rays or a CT scan to ensure you are in the correct position on the treatment table. They may move the table or physically move your body. They will check the scans straightaway and make any adjustments needed.

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Receiving the treatment

Once you are in the correct position, the radiation therapists will go into a nearby room to operate the machine. You will be alone in the treatment room, but you can talk to the therapists over an intercom, and they will watch you on a television screen. The therapists will move the machine automatically from outside the treatment room if necessary.

The machine will not touch you. You won’t usually see or feel anything unusual, but you may hear a buzzing noise from the machine while it is working and when it moves.

It is important to stay very still to ensure the treatment targets the correct area. The radiation therapists will tell you when you can move. If you feel uncomfortable, tell the therapists – they can switch off the machine and start it again when you’re ready. You will usually be able to breathe normally during the treatment. For some radiation to the chest area, you may be instructed to take a deep breath and hold it while the radiation is delivered.

The treatment itself takes only a few minutes, but each session may last 10–20 minutes because of the time it takes the radiation therapists to set up the equipment and put you into the correct position. You will be able to go home once the session is over. You will see the radiation oncologist, a registrar (doctor training in radiation oncology) or radiation oncology nurse regularly during a course of treatment to check how you are going.

Managing anxiety
The treatment machines are large and kept in an isolated room. This may be confronting, especially at your first treatment session. Some people feel more at ease with each session as they get to know the staff, procedures and fellow patients. If you are afraid of confined spaces (claustrophobic) or feel anxious, let the radiation therapists know so they can help you.

Discomfort during treatment

EBRT itself is painless – you won’t feel it happening. You may feel some discomfort when you’re lying on the treatment table, either because of the position you’re in or because of pain from the cancer. In this case, talk to the radiation oncology nurse about whether to take pain medicine before each session.

Some people who have treatment to the head say they see flashing lights or smell unusual odours. These effects are not harmful, but tell the radiation therapists if you experience them.

Safety precautions

EBRT does not make you radioactive because the radiation does not stay in your body during or after treatment.

You will not need to take any special precautions with bodily fluids (as you would with chemotherapy). It is safe for you to be with family, friends, children and pregnant women and for them to come into the radiation therapy centre with you. However, they cannot be in the room during the treatment.

This information was last reviewed in December 2017
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