Experiencing radiotherapy: what to know

The three most common cancer treatments are surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. These may be applied on their own or in a combination of one other. Icon Oncology takes a closer look at radiotherapy and its experience.

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 can be attached to the blood vessels and lymphatic tissue and this might not be possible. 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, and the amount of visits you need will be determined by the type, grade and stage of your cancer as well as your performance status, or in other words how well you are.

You might only require one 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. For example, the number of treatments you will receive.

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

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. Its 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 too.

The treatment is administered in many different ways and may be used in combination for a single patient. Icon’s radiotherapy practices offer treatments including 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 dose or multiple, the radiation gets to work at a cellular level and you’ll benefit from the treatment long after the procedure has been done.

It’s also advised to stay out of the sun; only wash with soap and water, and if you shower, simply let the water run over your skin, do not rub it.

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.

Radiotherapy units

Icon radiotherapy has 28 accredited facilities throughout South Africa. Accreditation is done against strict international and local standards. These includes measures like health and safety, staff training, equipment and HR.

Icon invests in high-tech linear accelerators (LINAC) and are investing huge amounts to ensure its LINAC fleet sets the standard in South Africa.

Technologies available are the conventional 3D conformal treatment, volumetric modulated arc therapy (VMAT), and also highly accurate stereotactic radiosurgery.

In layman’s terms, this means that your radiotherapy team can target tumours with extreme accuracy and ensure that none of the surrounding healthy tissue is damaged. These high-quality systems offer sophisticated functionality and the most advanced treatment capabilities available worldwide.

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 advised to understand how the process works.

Simply relying on the experts isn’t enough; play a proactive role in your cancer journey. This 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’ll receive the best care for your cancer type and stage.

For more information about Icon visit www.iconsa.co.za.

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