Testicular Cancer: Radiation Therapy

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is a treatment for cancer that uses rays of energy. The energy kills cancer cells.

When might radiation therapy be used?

Having this treatment depends on:

  • The type of testicular cancer you have

  • The extent (stage) of your cancer

After your surgery, your doctor may use radiation to treat the lymph nodes in the back of your belly (abdomen). This is to make sure all the cancer cells are gone. Radiation might also be used to treat cancer that has spread to other parts of your body, such as the brain.

Radiation is used more often to treat seminoma testicular cancers. These cancers are sensitive to radiation than nonseminomas. 

What to expect during radiation therapy

Radiation treatment can be like getting an X-ray. The radiation comes from a large machine. The machine doesn't touch you during the treatment. This is called external radiation therapy. The treatments don't hurt and they are quick.

You will see a radiation oncologist for treatment. This is a doctor who specializes in cancer and radiation. This doctor works with you to figure out the kind of radiation you need. This doctor also decides on the dose and how long you need the therapy.

Radiation is often given once a day, 5 days a week, for a certain number of weeks. You will likely be able to go home the same day.

Preparing for treatment

Before your first radiation treatment, you will have a session (simulation) to find out exactly where on your body the radiation beam needs to be aimed. This session may take up to 2 hours. You may have imaging tests such as CT scans, MRI scans, or ultrasound to help doctors know where your tumor is to better aim the radiation. Then you’ll lie still on a table while a radiation therapist uses a machine to define your treatment field. The field is the exact area on your body where the radiation will be aimed. Sometimes it’s called your port. The therapist may mark your skin with tiny dots of semi-permanent ink. This is done so that the radiation will be aimed at the exact same place each time. Also at this session, you may have body molds made to help keep you from moving during the treatment.

On the days you get radiation

On the days you get radiation treatment, you’ll lie on a table while the machine is placed over you. You may have to wear a hospital gown. The treatment is much like getting an X-ray, but it takes longer. It typically takes about 15 to 30 minutes to complete. You should plan on being there for about an hour.

At the start of the treatment session, a radiation therapist may place blocks or special shields on you. This will protect parts of your body that don’t need to be exposed to radiation. The therapist then lines up the machine so that radiation is directed to the spot that was marked during the simulation. When you are ready, the therapist leaves the room and turns the machine on. You may hear whirring or clicking noises, similar to the sounds of a vacuum cleaner, while the radiation is being given. During the session, you will be able to talk to the therapist over an intercom. You can’t feel radiation, so the process will not hurt. Also you will not be radioactive afterward.

What to expect after radiation therapy

Because radiation affects normal cells as well as cancer cells, you may have some side effects from this treatment. Some people have few or no side effects. If you do have them, your doctor may change the dose of your radiation or how often you get the treatments. Or the doctor may stop treatment until the side effects are cleared up. Be sure to tell your doctor about the side effects you have.

Side effects of radiation therapy

These are some of the common short-term side effects:

  • Diarrhea

  • Nausea

  • Fatigue

  • Skin irritation or changes in areas that get radiation

Some of these side effects can be controlled with medicine, and some may be helped with diet. Talk with your doctor or nurse about how to deal with them and how to know when they become serious. Usually these side effects go away a few weeks after you stop getting treatment.

Radiation might also increase the risk of getting another cancer in the treated area years later. But this is uncommon.