This type of radiation usually comes from a machine called a linear accelerator. Many times, the machine is linked to computers to precisely control the radiation. This helps limit damage to healthy tissue.
Before your first radiation treatment, you’ll have an appointment to plan exactly where on your body the radiation beam needs to be directed. This process is called simulation. The appointment may take up to two hours. The person who gives you the radiation is a radiation therapist. Here’s what you can expect to happen during simulation:
You’ll lie still on a table while a radiation therapist uses a machine to define your treatment fields. These are also called treatment ports. The field is the exact spot on your body where the radiation will be aimed. You may have more than one treatment field if you have cancer in more than one place. The therapist will mark your skin with tiny dots of colored permanent ink tattoos so that the radiation will be aimed at the exact same place each time.
You may also have imaging scans, such as CT scans, to help doctors know the exact location of your tumor to better aim the radiation.
You may need to have a plastic mold of your body made to help you lie still during the treatment.
You can receive external beam radiation treatment (EBRT) as an outpatient. That means you may have it at a hospital or a clinic, but you don’t have to stay the night.
Usually you’ll get treatment five days a week, excluding the weekends. The treatment will continue for several weeks, depending on the dose of EBRT you get and how your body responds to it.
You lie on a table while the machine is placed over you. You may get radiation from one or more directions. The experience is much like that of getting an X-ray, only it lasts longer. The radiation therapist will leave the room while you get the radiation, but you will be able to talk with him or her through an intercom. It takes up to 30 minutes for the whole process.
Radiation affects normal cells as well as cancer cells. This means it can cause side effects. What they are depends on what part of your body is treated. It also depends on the amount and the type of radiation you get. For esophageal cancer, most of the effects of radiation are in the area of your throat, neck, and chest.
Here’s an overview of how you may feel after having EBRT:
The skin around the area treated may get irritated. The skin may be red, flake, or drain fluid.
You may lose hair in the treatment area. Some of it may grow back.
You may feel very tired, or fatigued, for about a month after your treatment is done.
You may have swelling in your neck or chest.
You may have burning, tightness, or pain when swallowing and eating.
You may have pain or irritation in your esophagus. Or your throat may feel dry and sore.
You may have a dry mouth or a dry cough.
You may have some nausea and vomiting.
You may have shortness of breath.
Tell your health care team if you notice any of these problems. They can help you ease them. Some of these side effects will go away with time.