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External Radiation Therapy


What is external radiation therapy?

External radiation therapy is a treatment that uses radiation (x-ray energy) to treat cancer. Radiation is a strong beam of x-ray energy that passes through organs and healthy tissue to reach tumors. External radiation therapy is used to shrink the tumor or kill the cancer cells. It may also be used to decrease symptoms caused by the tumor. External radiation therapy may be combined with other treatments such as medicine, chemotherapy, or surgery.

How is external beam radiation therapy done?

External radiation treatment is usually done in a hospital or clinic. You may need external radiation therapy every day over a period of several weeks.

What are the risks of external beam radiation therapy?

  • Radiation kills cancer cells, but can also damage healthy cells. You may have nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or blood in your bowel movements. After treatment, you may feel more tired, weak, or have an increased risk of infection. External radiation therapy may cause your skin to be dry, red, or darker than usual. You may get sores on your skin. You may have thinning or loss of hair. Organs close to where the radiation is aimed may be harmed and not work as well, or stop working completely. You may become infertile after radiation treatment. Radiation increases the risk of a second type of cancer.
  • Without external radiation therapy, tumors can grow and damage tissues around them. You may get weak, lose weight, and have pain in areas with tumors. Cancer cells may spread and grow into new tumors in other parts of your body. These tumors can damage more organs and make it hard for you to heal.

How can I care for my skin during external radiation therapy?

External beam radiation therapy may make your skin red, dry, bleed, or peel. Care for your skin by doing the following:

  • Use a mild shampoo.
  • Carefully wash the wound with a mild soap. Rinse gently with water. Do not scrub. Pat your skin dry. Do not rub your skin.
  • Do not soak in a bath for a long time. This can make your skin drier.
  • Ask what type of lotion or cream is best to use on your skin.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

Contact your healthcare provider if:

  • You have a fever.
  • You get a cold or flu.
  • You cannot make it to any of your treatment sessions.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You have a seizure.
  • You suddenly have problems remembering things.
  • You suddenly have trouble breathing or chest pain.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.