- Cancer Information
- Cancer treatment
- Radiation therapy
- External beam radiation therapy (EBRT)
- What to expect at treatment sessions
What to expect at treatment sessions
Below is a description of what to expect at EBRT treatment sessions.
Learn more about:
- Preparing for treatment
- Positioning you for treatment
- Receiving the treatment
- Managing discomfort during treatment
- Taking safety precautions
- After the treatment session
- Managing anxiety before and during EBRT
- Podcast: Meditation and Relaxation
Preparing for treatment
You will usually start radiation therapy a few days or weeks after the planning session. There will be at least two radiation therapists at each treatment session. You may be asked to change into a hospital gown and remove any jewellery before you are taken into the treatment room. 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.
Positioning you for treatment
If you are having image-guided radiation therapy, the radiation therapists will take x-rays or a CT scan to make sure you are in the same position as you were during the planning session. They may mean moving the table or your body. They will check the scans straightaway and make any adjustments needed.
Receiving the treatment
Once you are in the correct position, the radiation therapists will leave the treatment room. They can see you on a television screen and you can talk to them over an intercom. The radiation therapists will control the machine from a nearby room.
The machine may move around you into different positions but it will not touch you. You won’t see or feel the radiation but you may hear a buzzing noise from the machine while it is working and when it moves. The radiation therapist may turn off the machine and come into the room to change your position or adjust the machine.
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. You will usually be able to breathe normally during the treatment. For treatment to some areas, such as the chest, you may be asked to take a deep breath and hold it while the radiation is delivered.
The treatment itself takes only a few minutes, but each session of EBRT may last around 10–40 minutes because of the time it takes the radiation therapists to set up the equipment, place you into the correct position and then do the CT scan. The first session may take longer while checks are performed. You will be able to go home once the session is over.
Managing discomfort during treatment
EBRT itself is painless and you won’t feel it happening. If you feel some discomfort when you’re lying on the treatment table, tell the therapists – they can switch off the machine and start it again when you’re ready. If you’re in pain because of the position you’re in or because of pain from the cancer, talk to the radiation oncology nurse. They may suggest you 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 have them.
Taking safety precautions
EBRT does not make you radioactive because the radiation does not stay in your body after each treatment session. 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 other people, including children and pregnant women, and for them to come to the radiation therapy centre with you. However, they cannot be in the room during the treatment.
After the treatment session
You will see the radiation oncologist, a registrar (a hospital doctor training to be a radiation oncologist) or a radiation oncology nurse regularly to check your progress and discuss any side effects.
Managing anxiety before and during EBRT
The radiation therapy machines are large and kept in an isolated room. This may be confronting, especially at your first treatment session. You may feel more comfortable as you get to know the staff, procedures and other patients.
If you are having radiation therapy for a head and neck or brain cancer, you may have to wear a mask during each session. Wearing the mask may make you feel anxious or claustrophobic. Tell the radiation therapists if you feel anxious or claustrophobic before or during treatment.
With the support of the radiation therapy team, many people find that they get used to wearing the mask. The team may suggest you try breathing or relaxation exercises, or listening to music to help you relax. A mild sedative may also help.
Podcast: Meditation and Relaxation
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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