- Cancer Information
- Cancer treatment
- Radiation therapy
- External beam radiation therapy (EBRT)
- What to expect at treatment sessions
What to expect at treatment sessions
You will usually have your first treatment session a few days or weeks after the planning session. There will be at least two radiation therapists at each treatment session. They may ask you to change into a hospital gown and remove any jewellery from the treatment area 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 make sure you are in the same position you were in during the planning session. They may move the table or physically move your body. They will check the scans straightaway and make any adjustments needed.
Learn more about:
Receiving the treatment
Once you are in the correct position on the treatment table, the radiation therapists will leave and you will be alone in the treatment room. You’ll be able to talk to the therapists over an intercom and they will watch you on a television screen. The therapists will operate the machine from a nearby room. 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 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 may last around 15–25 minutes because of the time it takes the radiation therapists to set up the equipment and put you into the correct position. The first session may take longer while checks are performed. You will be able to go home once the session is over.
You will see the radiation oncologist, a registrar (a hospital doctor in training to be a radiation oncologist) or a radiation oncology nurse regularly to check your progress and discuss any side effects.
Managing anxietyThe treatment machines are large and kept in an isolated room. This may be confronting, especially at your first treatment session. You may feel more at ease as you get to know the staff, procedures and other patients. Tell the radiation therapists if you feel anxious or claustrophobic before or during treatment. They can suggest breathing or relaxation exercises, or arrange for you to have a mild sedative.
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 have them.
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 family, friends, 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.
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Dr Madhavi Chilkuri, Radiation Oncologist, Townsville Cancer Centre, The Townsville Hospital, and Dean, RANZCR Faculty of Radiation Oncology, QLD; Polly Baldwin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Patricia Hanley, Consumer; Prof Michael Hofman, Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging Physician, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Leanne Hoy, Cancer Nurse Consultant, GenesisCare, VIC; Sharon King, Accredited Practising Dietitian, TAS; Dr Yoo Young (Dominique) Lee, Radiation Oncology Consultant, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD; Dr Wendy Phillips, Senior Medical Physicist, Department of Radiation Oncology, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Katrina Rech, Radiation Therapist and Quality Systems Manager, GenesisCare, SA. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.