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7 'Must-Knows' For Anyone About to Start Radiation Therapy

Is it possible to hear the words, “You need radiation treatment” and not feel completely overwhelmed? As if hearing the words “you have cancer” isn’t scary enough, deciding to undergo radiation treatment adds an entirely new layer of uncertainty to your cancer journey.

What is Radiation Treatment?

Radiation is a form of cancer treatment that utilizes large amounts of high-energy particles or waves to target and kill cancer cells. Radiation kills cancer cells by damaging their DNA, making it impossible for the cells to keep dividing. Radiation therapy can be delivered two ways: externally or internally.

In external beam radiation therapy, a large machine emits a beam of radiation directly at your cancer. In internal radiation therapy, radiation is delivered to your body internally. This may be with a “solid,” i.e. capsules or seeds, that are placed in your body near the tumor (brachytherapy). Or, liquid radiation may be delivered via an IV line or injection. Both external and internal radiation are considered “local” treatment, because radiation targets the cancer cells with as little effect as possible on the rest of the body.

Radiation is used to treat many kinds of cancer, such as breast, thyroid, brain, cervix, and prostate cancer. Depending on the type of radiation you receive, the treatment may be delivered in one or two appointments, or you may be required to go to a treatment center several days a week for a couple of months.

Chances are you didn’t know much about radiation treatment before you found out you needed it, and now that you’re faced with it, may not have an idea of what to expect. We asked our Mighty cancer community to share some “must-knows” that can help make radiation a little more bearable. Check out their advice below, and let us know in the comments if you have any additional tips and tricks to add.

1. Don’t brush it off as an ‘easy’ treatment.

If you don’t have to do chemotherapy or surgery, you and your loved ones might be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief that you “only” have to do radiation. Or if you also need other treatments, you might find yourself dismissing radiation as the “easy” treatment. But it’s OK to feel sad, scared or anxious about your upcoming radiation treatments. You don’t have to downplay the challenges of radiation (and there are many!). All cancer treatments are difficult in their own way — it’s not a competition.

“Don’t brush it off. I have heard people say ‘it’s just radiation.’ It’s a form of treatment and you need to self care. Rest, hydrate and slather your area that’s being radiated. I had my worst panic attack while doing this. It will suck at times but you will get through it.” — Annmarie Otis, Stupid Dumb Breast Cancer

2. Make sure you have snacks on hand.

The catch-22 of cancer treatment is that you need to eat a nutritious diet full of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats in order to give your body the energy it needs to fight and recover; however, the treatment itself can make eating unpleasant thanks to side effects like mouth sores and nausea. Talk with your doctors about which types of food you should prioritize, and be sure to have some of your favorite snacks in easy reach while you’re recovering after treatments.

“I always had a full bottle of water before brain radiation, and a granola bar and almonds afterwards. I got tired as the weeks went on.” — Donna C.

“Stay hydrated and eat your protein. You will be tired like never before, be kind to yourself!” — Theresa F.

3. Find an activity that lifts your spirits.

It’s all too easy to spend your time between treatments ruminating on your anxieties and fears and feeling like your only identity now is “cancer patient.” But having something fun to focus on besides cancer can help distract you and also remind you of all the facets of your personality that cancer can’t take away. Find something you love to do regardless of cancer (read science fiction novels? watch your favorite sports team? listen to Broadway musicals?) and keep doing it throughout your treatment.

“Each and every week before my eight chemotherapy sessions and six weeks of radiation, I chose a kickass song and danced and sang to it — capturing my ungainly efforts on video… As my hair thinned and my energy faltered, these videos kept me focused on the road ahead and also helped me show the world I was more than my diagnosis.” — Deborah V.

4. Be prepared for the side effects.

Radiation therapy comes with a list of possible side effects including fatigue, hair loss, nausea, vomiting, headache, and skin changes. In addition, “late effects” such as memory loss, eye problems, sexual problems, and hearing loss may show up months after treatment has ended. Although it may be tempting to simply “think positively” and hope you don’t encounter them, you’ll feel less blindsided and more in control if you’re already well-versed on possible side effects. Talk to your doctor before treatment begins about the side effects you may experience and how to deal with them.

“You [may] have more side effects than expected. I was nauseated and would vomit after treatment. Also I had an awful metallic taste in my mouth the whole time.” — Samantha M.

5. Use soothing ointments at the radiation site.

External radiation can cause the skin around the target area to feel sore and painful after treatments. A healing cleanser applied to the skin helps soothe irritation and dryness. Make sure products are fragrance-free and approved by your care team before you use them.

“Depending on where… load up with MooGoo!” — Kellie L.

“Aquaphor is your friend!” — Theresa F.

6. Figure out the most comfortable clothes to wear to treatment.

Depending on where your radiation is targeted, you may be asked to put on a hospital gown before each treatment. However, as Mighty member Jodi W. pointed out, you may be able to negotiate a specific outfit that makes you feel more comfortable and also allows your radiation technologist to access the required area. Even if you do need to change into a gown, it’s a good idea to wear loose, soft clothing that won’t irritate the radiated area after treatment to your appointments.

“When I started radiation for my breast cancer, I hated being so exposed and was very depressed. For some reason, changing into a hospital gown bothered me, too. My radiation oncologist suggested I wear a tank top and not a gown. So I wore my radiation outfit of a cardigan, tank with shelf bra and yoga pants. I would get on the table, pull the tank down and when finished I would pull my tank up, put my cardigan on and leave. No having to change. For whatever reason, that helped me so much mentally.” — Jodi W.

7. Practice mindfulness to calm yourself before treatment.

Sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting to be called back so you can get radiation delivered to your body? Terrifying. Starting off each appointment filled with anxiety won’t make anything easier, so consider meditating or practicing mindfulness before treatments. Mighty contributor Esther Brandon shared these instructions for centering your mind before treatments:

Sitting in a chair waiting for an appointment or for treatment, I would take slow intentional breaths, moving into a seated posture with my feet firmly on the floor, my back straight, my belly soft, creating space for my breath. I would notice any sensations in my body, if my heart was beating quickly or my stomach was churning. I would notice if my mind was jumping from thought to thought. I would breathe, in and out, and would notice the feelings, sensations or thoughts settling like waves gently breaking on the shore.

For more insight into radiation treatment, check out these stories by our Mighty community:

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