Key Points About Radiation Therapy

  • Your cancer care specialist may use radiation therapy as part of your cancer treatment.
  • Over half of people with cancer undergo radiation therapy at some point during their treatment.
  • You may undergo radiation therapy before or after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor.


Radiation therapy is a treatment used for many types of cancer. In radiation therapy, intense beams of light – such as X-ray – kill cancerous cells and tumors. The goal of radiation therapy is to kill as few healthy cells as possible.

Preparing for radiation therapy

Depending on the type of radiation therapy you will undergo, as well as other factors, your specialist may need to prepare your body to receive radiation. This may include radiation simulations or planning scans.

Expectations from radiation therapy

On the day of your radiation therapy, you will lie flat on a table. The machine that delivers the radiation – called a linear accelerator – will rotate around you and deliver the radiation beams from all angles. The machine makes a buzzing sound. 

Your provider has programmed the machine to deliver the exact dose, strength and location of radiation, based on your unique needs and cancer type. 

Duration of radiation therapy

Each treatment session takes about 10 to 30 minutes. Though you’ll have to lie still during the treatment, you shouldn’t feel any pain during the radiation therapy session.
Most people receive radiation at an outpatient facility for about five days a week for a certain period of time. You will have breaks between your treatment sessions to allow your body to rest and your body’s healthy cells to recover.

Recovery from radiation therapy

You may experience one or more of the following side effects following your radiation therapy:

  • Changes in taste
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Dry mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent urge to urinate
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Shortness of breath
  • Skin irritation
  • Sore throat
  • Tooth decay
  • Trouble swallowing

Most people can continue their normal daily activities, such as work or school while undergoing radiation therapy. You may want to plan a bit more downtime in your schedule to allow your body to rest, especially between treatments.

Common conditions requiring radiation therapy

Doctors use radiation therapy to treat nearly all forms of cancer. They can also use radiation therapy to shrink benign (noncancerous) tumors.

When should I seek treatment?

If you think you may need to undergo radiation therapy, start by voicing your concerns to your specialist. Communication with your doctor is the best way to make sure you get the information you need.