Patient Education

About Radiation Therapy

Radiation is a type of treatment that is used to shrink tumors and stop the growth of cancer cells. High energy x-rays are aimed directly at cancerous cells or tumors. The technique is so effective in treating some types of cancer that nearly two-thirds of patients will receive radiation therapy, according to the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO).

Radiation can be used as a stand-alone treatment, and often it is the only treatment needed. Radiation is also used in combination with surgery, chemotherapy and other targeted therapies. For example, doctors can use radiation before surgery to shrink a tumor or after surgery to stop the growth of remaining cancer cells.

There are two main types of radiation therapy:

  1. External beam radiation uses specialized machines to administer a high dose of radiation directly to the cancer site.
  2. Internal radiation, or brachytherapy, involves radioactive material that is implanted in the body at the tumor site.

Learn more about treatments and services offered in the Department of Radiation Oncology.

Video: Radiation Therapy 101

Drs. Peter Rossi (Winship at Emory Saint Joseph's Hospital) and Karen Godette (Winship at Emory University Hospital Midtown) describe the types of treatments available to patients at Winship Cancer Institute.

Video: What is it like?

What is it like to receive radiation treatment? Having radiation therapy is like having an x-ray at a dentist's office. Machines may move around you. It does not hurt. You will not become radioactive from the treatments and your body will not pass radiation on to others.

Take a look into a treatment room experience through the eyes, and lens, of a patient.

Side Effects

For some people, radiation therapy causes few or no side effects. For others, side effects may occur because the radiation used to destroy cancer cells can also damage healthy cells and tissues located near the treatment area. Your health care team will work with you to ease or prevent these side effects. This approach is called palliative or supportive care and is an important part of cancer treatment.

Here is a list of nine common side effects and how to manage them:

  • Diarrhea (PDF)
  • Fatigue (PDF)
  • Hair loss (PDF)
  • Mouth and throat changes (PDF)
  • Nausea and vomiting (PDF)
  • Sexuality and fertility in men (PDF)
  • Sexuality and fertility in women (PDF)
  • Skin changes (PDF)
  • Urination changes (PDF)

Learn more at the National Cancer Institute's "Cancer Topics" or at the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) "Answers to Your Radiation Therapy Questions."