Radiotherapy - what patients need to know

» Will I be radioactive after radiotherapy?

External beam radiotherapy does not make patients radioactive. Patients who receive radioactive implants (brachytherapy) or radionuclide therapy might be radioactive for several days to months but will be discharged from the hospital or radiotherapy facility only when it is considered safe. Hospital or radiotherapy staff provide safety instructions before discharging patients. Please see the section on brachytherapy for more information about this type of treatment.

» What is the difference in radiation dose with radiotherapy compared with diagnostic procedures?

In radiotherapy, the radiation dose to the tumour is several thousand times greater than the dose received by patients undergoing diagnostic X ray examinations.

» Is radiotherapy safe and effective?

Yes, radiotherapy is a well-established, safe and effective form of treatment. Millions of patients are treated safely with radiotherapy every year to cure or control symptoms of cancers such as head and neck, brain, breast, cervical, prostate and skin cancer. Radiotherapy also is an effective treatment for some benign diseases. However, radiotherapy, like other cancer treatments, has the potential for side effects.

» What are the side effects of radiotherapy?

Patients may experience side effects depending on the size and target location of the radiation dose. Side effects include radiation damage to healthy tissue. Within a few days of starting treatment, some patients may develop nausea and fever, skin reddening and hair loss. These symptoms will improve as the treatment progresses. Some patients may develop skin damage later in their treatment. Depending on the treatment site, patients may develop side effects such as mouth ulcers and dry mouth, lung inflammation and bleeding from the rectum. Late effects may develop at the site of radiotherapy even long after treatment.

» What measures are taken to ensure the quality and safety of the treatment?

Specially designed equipment and treatment rooms are used for radiotherapy, and doctors, medical physicists, radiation therapists and related health care professionals are trained and qualified. Quality checks should be performed to ensure that all processes involved in radiotherapy treatment are carried out properly and that the correct radiation dose is delivered to the right location. All radiotherapy equipment should be regularly checked for proper operation and the radiation dose delivered should be measured to ensure that it is correct.

» Will radiotherapy treatment affect my ability to reproduce?

In general, radiotherapy treatment does not affect reproduction ability unless the reproductive organs and pituitary gland are included in the treatment area and have received a high dose. 

» Will radiotherapy treatment affect my future offspring?

Current knowledge indicates that patients’ future offspring do not experience any health effects as a result of radiotherapy. No hereditary effects of radiotherapy have been shown in humans, although experimental animal studies have shown hereditary effects.

» Can a pregnant patient receive radiotherapy?

Cancers located away from the pelvis may be treated by radiotherapy only after discussion with the radiation oncologist. Cancers in the pelvis will require careful consideration. Doctors will discuss with their patients whether to proceed with radiotherapy, delay the treatment until after birth, terminate pregnancy, or use alternative treatment.

» What are the risks of getting cancer from the radiotherapy treatment?

In adults, the increased risk of cancer as a result of radiotherapy is usually very small, while children’s risk of cancer increases more. For most types of treatment, such as for head and neck cancers, the risk is low, while in a few, such as for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the risk is relatively higher.  Radiation oncologists should discuss cancer risks with their patients.