Radiation therapy: Don’t be afraid to ask

Understanding your condition and treatment options can help you make the right decision, prepare for treatment and recover better.

Coping with the diagnosis of cancer can be a stressful experience. When you are first told that you have cancer and need to undergo treatment, it can be very challenging to take in all the information that you need to know.

Because cancer is different for each person, it will be good to work closely with your doctor and nurse to decide what is best for you.

Ask your doctor, nurse or others on the medical team supporting your journey all the questions you have. Do not be afraid to say you need to know more. Nothing you say will sound silly or strange to your doctor or nurse.

Understanding your condition and options will empower you to take control. It will be very difficult to make clear, informed decisions if you are confused, fearful, and lack the necessary information. Asking questions will help you to understand better the risks and potential side effects of your treatment options and alternatives.

If your doctor has recommended that you undergo radiation therapy (or radiotherapy, as it is also commonly called), here are some questions you might want to ask.

The answers are different for each patient. So it is all the more important for you to ask these questions.

Your condition and treatment options

Understanding your diagnosis, options for treatment, and what radiation therapy is all about will help you weigh the benefits and risks of undergoing radiotherapy. You need to know if this treatment is the only one available, if there are alternatives, or whether it is being combined with other forms of treatment.

  • What type and stage of cancer do I have?
  • What options do I have for treatment?
  • Why am I being recommended radiation therapy? Is this the only treatment or will I have other treatments (such as chemotherapy) as well?
  • How will radiation therapy help me? Is this a cure or a short-term solution? What are the risks and side effects?
  • What will happen if I do not want to undergo radiation therapy? Are there other options?

Before you begin radiation therapy

As you make your decision to undergo radiotherapy, you will need to know what exactly it will involve and how it will affect you. Knowing the details will help you determine if you are prepared for any pain or discomfort, side effects, and any short-term or long-term risks. It will also help you and your family plan for caregiving during the treatment process. Ask the doctor to describe and explain the kind of radiation therapy that he is recommending and the treatment process.

  • What type of radiation therapy (external, brachytherapy or systemic) will I undergo? How does it treat my cancer? What is the expected result?
  • How many treatment sessions would I need? How long will it take each time? How frequent will the treatments be?
  • How long will the entire course take?
  • Will it hurt?
  • What are the side effects and how can I manage them?
  • Will radiation therapy affect my ability to have children? Are there any other risks of radiotherapy?

During radiation therapy

As with most treatment, radiotherapy will have associated side effects. But there may be ways to deal with the discomfort or other effects. Find out from your doctor what you can do, such as what you should eat, or what you should not do. The information can be very useful for you and your family as they care for you through the treatment process, and help you to recover better and faster.

  • Do I need to take any precautions during radiotherapy? Is there anything I should do or should not do (e.g. exercise, work, specific activities, exposure to others)
  • Do I need a special diet? What foods or drinks should I take that can help me, and what should I avoid?
  • What happens if I miss a treatment session?
  • What side effects should I look out for that may affect my treatment options?
  • Are there helpful things or tips to minimise any pain and discomfort?
  • Are there support group programmes to help me cope with radiation therapy?

After radiation therapy

Even though you may have completed your treatment, there may be things you need to look out for and address in your journey through cancer. Knowing what may come next and what you need to do will help you prepare for and plan your follow-up. This will in turn improve your recovery process and help you regain your strength better. It is also important to understand any potential future risks and know what to look out for, so that you know when you should seek help.

  • How would I know if the treatment worked?
  • What signs or symptoms should I look out for that I should tell the doctor about?
  • What signs or symptoms might I expect to see that I need not be alarmed by?
  • What are the chances of the cancer coming back?
  • What can I do to reduce the risk of cancer recurring?
  • What follow-up appointments do I need, and what is expected of me?
  • How long will the follow-up take?