Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. At low doses, radiation is used as an x-ray to see inside your body and take pictures, such as x-rays of your teeth or broken bones. Radiation used in cancer treatment works in much the same way, except that it is given at higher doses. Doctors use several types of radiation therapy:

  • External radiation: The radiation comes from a large machine outside the body. Most people go to a hospital or clinic for treatment.
  • Internal radiation (also called brachytherapy): The radiation comes from radioactive material placed in seeds, needles, or thin plastic tubes that are put in or near the tumor. You will stay in the hospital for this treatment. The implants generally remain in place for several days. 
  • Systemic radiation: The radiation comes from liquid or capsules containing radioactive material that travels throughout the body. You swallow the liquid or capsules, or you receive an injection. This type of radiation therapy can be used to treat cancer or control pain from cancer that has spread to the bone. Only a few types of cancer are currently treated in this way.

The type of radiation therapy used depends on many factors:

  • The type of cancer
  • The size of the tumor
  • The tumor's location in the body
  • How close the cancer is to normal tissues that are sensitive to radiation
  • How far into the body the radiation needs to travel
  • The patient's general health and medical history
  • Whether the patient will have other types of cancer treatment
  • Other factors, such as the patient's age and other medical conditions

State-of-the-art radiation therapies used at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) focus the energy precisely on the cancer to avoid damaging healthy tissue around the tumor. Learn more about our Radiation Oncology clinic as well as common radiation treatments and side effects in our radiation therapy factsheets.

At HCI, many people take part in your radiation treatment and care. They work together as a team to provide care that is just right for you. Your radiation therapy team may include some or all of the following specialists:

  • Radiation oncologist. This doctor specializes in using radiation therapy to treat cancer. He or she prescribes how much radiation you will receive, plans how your treatment will be given, closely follows you during your course of treatment, and prescribes care you may need to help with side effects. After you are finished with radiation therapy, this doctor will see you for follow-up visits and check for side effects and to assess how well the radiation has worked. Learn more about HCI's radiation oncologists.
  • Mid-level provider, such as a nurse practitioner or physician assistant. This provider has advanced medical training and works closely with doctors. He or she can order tests, prescribe medications, and closely watch your response to treatment. After you are finished with radiation therapy, he or she may see you for follow-up visits to check for side effects and to assess how well the radiation has worked.
  • Radiation nurse. This nurse provides care during radiation therapy, working with all the members of your radiation therapy team. He or she will talk with you about your radiation treatment and help you manage side effects.
  • Radiation therapist. This person works with you during each radiation therapy session. He or she positions you for treatment and runs the machines to make sure you get the dose of radiation prescribed by your radiation oncologist.
  • Other health care providers. Your team may also include a dietitian, physical therapist, social worker, and others. You are also part of the radiation therapy team. Your role is to ask questions and talk about your concerns, let someone on your radiation therapy team know when you have side effects, tell your doctor or nurse if you are in pain, and follow the advice of your radiation therapy team about how to care for yourself at home.

For more information, visit the Radiation Oncology website or contact the G. Mitchell Morris Cancer Learning Center (CLC), HCI's free cancer information service and lending library. It is located on the sixth floor of the cancer hospital and is open to the public Monday – Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The CLC offers four easy ways to get cancer-related information:

  • Call toll free 1-888-424-2100
  • Visit the sixth floor of the cancer hospital
  • E-mail cancerinfo@hci.utah.edu
  • Text "askhci" to 66746

The source of this information is the National Cancer Institute's Radiation Therapy and You.