Each year thousands of people go back to living normal lives after undergoing radiation oncology, either alone or combined with other treatments such as chemotherapy, infusion therapy and hematology/oncology treatments.
The Tommy and Shirley Strickland Cancer Center is largely dedicated to this specialized field of treatment, which uses targeted, regulated doses of high-energy radiation to kill malignant tumors. Our goal is to deliver enough radiation to kill rapidly growing cancer cells while sparing healthy tissue from exposure. As a patient, you’ll speak at length with your radiation oncology team about various options to choose the best one for your particular situation.
The Elekta Synergy® Linear Accelerator
For years, radiation oncologists faced two major challenges when treating cancer patients: the movements of internal organs and problems in patient setup.
The Elekta Synergy Linear Accelerator was the very first to use 3D imaging for setting up radiation treatments. It represents the latest cancer-fighting software in all of Georgia, and enables our specialists to accurately target tumors and remember precise locations for follow-up visits. This means more aggressive treatment of tumors and less damage to surrounding healthy tissues. And after the first visit, when the proper dosage and exact position is calibrated specifically for the patient, treatment sessions can take just five to fifteen minutes.
Radiation Treatment Process
What happens before, during and after treatment?
Once the diagnosis has been made, you will probably talk with your primary care physician along with several cancer specialists, such as a surgeon, a medical oncologist and a radiation oncologist, to discuss your treatment choices.
These specialists will work together to help recommend the best treatment for you. In some cases, your cancer will need to be treated by using more than one type of treatment. For example, if you have breast cancer, you might have surgery to remove the tumor (by a surgeon), then have radiation therapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells in or near your breast (by a radiation oncologist). You also might receive chemotherapy (by a medical oncologist) to destroy cancer cells that have traveled to other parts of the body.
Meeting with a Radiation Oncologist
If you are considering radiation therapy, you must first meet with a radiation oncologist to see if radiation therapy is right for you. During your first visit, your doctor will evaluate your need for radiation therapy and its likely results. This includes reviewing your current medical problems, past medical history, past surgical history, family history, medications, allergies and lifestyle. The doctor will also perform a physical exam to assess the extent of your disease and judge your general physical condition.
You may also be seen by a medical student, a resident (radiation oncologist in training), a nurse practitioner, a physician’s assistant or a nurse. After reviewing your medical tests, including CT scans, MRI scans and PET scans, and completing a thorough examination, your radiation oncologist will discuss with you the potential benefits and risks of radiation therapy and answer your questions. For a list of questions that you may want to ask, please see the section “What questions should I ask my doctor?”
To be most effective, radiation therapy must be aimed precisely at the same target or targets each and every time treatment is given. The process of measuring your body and marking your skin to help your team direct the beams of radiation safely and exactly to their intended locations is called simulation.
During simulation, your radiation oncologist and radiation therapist place you on the simulation machine in the exact position you will be in during the actual treatment. Your radiation therapist, under your doctor’s supervision, then marks the area to be treated directly on your skin or on immobilization devices. Immobilization devices are molds, casts, headrests or other devices that help you remain in the same position during the entire treatment. The radiation therapist marks your skin and/or the immobilization devices either with a bright, temporary paint or a set of small, permanent tattoos.
Your radiation oncologist may request that special blocks or shields be made for you. These blocks or shields are put in the external beam therapy machine before each of your treatments and are used to shape the radiation to your tumor and keep the rays from hitting normal tissue. Multileaf collimators may also be used to shape the beam and achieve safe delivery of your radiation treatment.
Once you have finished with the simulation, your radiation oncologist and other members of the treatment team review the information they obtained during simulation along with your previous medical tests to develop a treatment plan. Often, a special treatment planning CT scan is done to help with the simulation and treatment planning. This CT scan is in addition to your diagnostic CT scan. Frequently, sophisticated treatment planning computer software is used to help design the best possible treatment plan.
After reviewing all of this information, your doctor will write a prescription that outlines exactly how much radiation you will receive and to what parts of your body.
Get plenty of rest.
Many patients experience fatigue during radiation therapy, so it is important to make sure you are well rested. If possible, ask friends and family to help out during treatment by running errands and preparing meals. This will help you get the rest you need to focus on fighting your cancer.
Follow doctor’s orders.
In many cases, your doctor will ask you to call if you develop a fever of 101 degrees or higher. Be sure to read your instructions as far as caring for yourself during treatment.
Eat a balanced, nutritious diet.
A nutritionist, nurse or doctor may work with you to make sure you are eating the right foods to get the vitamins and minerals you need. With certain types of radiation, you may need to change your diet to minimize side effects. You should not attempt to lose weight during radiation therapy since you need more calories due to your cancer and treatment.
Treat the skin that is exposed to radiation with extra care.
The skin in the area receiving treatment may become red and sensitive, similar to getting a sunburn. Your radiation oncology nurse will review specific instructions with you for caring for your skin. Some guidelines include:
- Clean the skin daily with warm water and a mild soap recommended by your nurse.
- Avoid using any lotions, perfumes, deodorants or powders in the treatment area unless approved by your doctor or nurse. Try not to use products containing alcohol and perfumes.
- Avoid putting anything hot or cold on the treated skin. This includes heating pads and ice packs.
- Stay out of the sun. If you must spend time outdoors, wear a hat or clothing to protect your skin. After treatment, use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15.
- Seek out support.
There are many emotional demands that you must cope with during your cancer diagnosis and treatment. It is common to feel anxious, depressed, afraid or hopeless. It may help to talk about your feelings with a close friend, family member, nurse, social worker or psychologist. To find a support group in your area, ask your radiation oncology nurse. There are many support groups that meet in person, over the phone or on the Internet.
After treatment is completed, follow-up appointments will be scheduled so that your radiation oncologist can make sure your recovery is proceeding normally and can continue to monitor your health status. Your radiation oncologist may also order additional diagnostic tests. Reports on your treatment may also be sent to the other doctors helping treat your cancer.
As time goes by, the number of times you need to visit your radiation oncologist will decrease. However, you should know that your radiation oncology team will always be available should you need to speak to someone about your treatment.
Benefits of the Elekta Synergy Linear Accelerator:
See, in great detail, soft tissue in any area of the body
- Visualize more precisely how tumor tissue and normal tissue moves within the body
- Pursue more advanced, and more accurate, treatments
- More aggressively treat tumors
- Minimize exposure among surrounding healthy tissue
- Reduce treatment times to as few as five minutes in some cases