How to Prepare for Your First Radiation Therapy Session
Being diagnosed with cancer is overwhelming. Understanding what to expect can help you feel less anxious and allow you to focus on your recovery. Read on to learn more about how to best prepare for your treatment and what to expect before you start your radiation therapy.
In the weeks leading up to radiation therapy
It is important to support yourself mentally and physically when it comes to radiation therapy, and there are several steps you can take prior to your first session to help you feel healthier throughout your treatment.
Support your nutritional health
Eating a well-balanced diet allows you to keep your energy up, helps promote the immune system and provides your body with the nutrients it needs to help your healthy cells regrow between radiation therapy sessions. Many patients have also indicated their diet helps them better manage side effects. If possible:
- Eat protein-rich foods at each meal, such as eggs, meat, nuts, etc.
- If you are struggling to eat solid foods, try drinking meal-replacement drinks or shakes.
- Incorporate a variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet.
- Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
- Limit alcohol and sugary foods.
- Don’t panic about being perfect – sometimes during treatment, only certain foods sound good, and that’s okay, even if they’re not the healthiest.
- Request a consultation with a dietitian or nutritionist if you are losing weight, need to gain weight or simply want dietary advice.
Talk to your care team about any additional dietary restrictions or needs for your specific situation.
Support your emotional health
Cancer and radiation therapy can be a big source of disruption to your life. They may cause feelings of fear, anger, anxiety or worry. There are several tactics you can try to help you cope with these emotions, and while not everyone will respond the same way, it may be helpful to:
- Attend support groups or engage with an online support community to connect with others who have gone through or are on a similar journey.
- Participate in activities you find joy in, such as gardening, dancing or painting.
- Start journaling as an outlet for your feelings.
- Meditate or do yoga.
- Practice self-kindness. Don’t be upset if you weren’t able to clean the house today or run all your errands – these tasks will wait for you.
- Get plenty of rest at night. When you are well-rested, you will feel more energized and positive about your treatment.
- Talk to friends or loved ones about how you feel.
- Seek professional support through a counselor or psychiatrist. Asking for help is okay.
Your care team can provide additional suggestions or support group recommendations upon request.
Support your physical health
Exercising can contribute to several benefits, including helping to reduce fatigue, stress and side effects, and improving strength and emotional wellbeing. In general:
- If you already have an established exercise routine, you can typically continue it as is.
- If you are just starting to exercise, take it slow – a brisk walk daily is a great place to start.
- If possible, incorporate some sort of cardio exercise into your routine, such as swimming or bicycling.
- If you are tired, listen to your body and take a break – it’s okay to take time to recover.
- Set goals for yourself and celebrate your accomplishments as you reach them.
- Don’t forget to drink plenty of water and eat a healthy diet.
- If you have physical limitations or want advice on how to safely and effectively exercise, ask for a referral for physical therapy or for an exercise trainer with experience in working with cancer patients and survivors.
Before you start any exercise program, talk to your care team. Some activities can impact your recovery.
Depending on what type of cancer you have, talk to your doctor about additional things you can do to help prepare for treatment, such as visiting your dentist to check for any tooth infections prior to radiation to the head and neck, or creating a smoking cessation plan if you will have radiation for lung cancer. You may also want to consider creating a fertility plan if you plan to have children in the future. Talk to your radiation oncologist about your options and/or if you have any fertility concerns.
Planning your radiation therapy
Prior to radiation treatment, there are several steps you will need to take to help your care team set up the best plan for your needs.
Watch the video to learn more about what to expect during radiation therapy
Meeting with your radiation oncologist
You will first meet with your radiation oncologist in a consultation to discuss the most appropriate treatment plan for you. Before this appointment, you can prepare by:
- Requesting your medical records be sent to your radiation oncologist’s office
- Gathering your insurance card, photo ID and referral forms
- Compiling a list of medications and supplements you are taking
- Preparing a list of questions to discuss with your radiation oncologist
After your consultation, you may be scheduled for a CT simulation to map out the treatment area and create a customized plan. Think of this as a dress rehearsal that is used to determine exactly how your treatment will be delivered.
At the beginning of the simulation, a radiation therapist or technologist will carefully position you on a treatment table. A scan of your tumor will then be taken in order to pinpoint its location and gather data on its size and shape.
In some circumstances, a CT simulation is not used. Instead your radiation oncology team may design your radiation based on the anatomy of the area to be treated by mapping out the treatment area on your skin. This is called a “clinical” simulation.
If you are going to have external beam radiation therapy, you may also receive a permanent ink marking to help deliver the radiation to the same spot every session. These markings are small and look similar to freckles. Some radiation technologies may not require permanent markings, and your care team will let you know what to expect.
Additionally, because it is important that you stay in the same position during each radiation treatment session, your care team may fit you with an immobilization device, which could include a headrest, mold or plaster cast.
If you are going to have internal radiation therapy, or brachytherapy, the information gathered from your CT simulation will be used to determine the positioning of the catheters which will deliver the radiation.
Beginning radiation therapy
Once your simulation is complete, your radiation plan will be customized, reviewed and approved by an experienced clinical team. Typically, this process takes about seven to 10 days but may be shorter depending on your specific plan and treatment urgency.
Once your plan is complete, your care team will contact you and schedule your first radiation therapy appointment. If you are receiving external radiation, there is typically no pain during your treatment and you can resume your normal activities right away. You can also likely drive immediately after your appointment unless you prefer assistance from a caregiver. Depending on the area of the body treated, you may develop pain or sensitivity from inflammation to the affected tissues. Pain medications may be used in these circumstances.
If you are having internal radiation, your schedule will depend on the type of brachytherapy you are receiving, and you may require a short hospital stay. Your care team will let you know exactly what to expect.
As you prepare for radiation therapy, don’t be afraid to talk to your care team and ask questions. Your care team is here to make sure you feel comfortable and educated, because when you are informed, you feel empowered and more positive about your treatment.