Education for radiation therapy not so simple

Details depend on cancer, location, tumor size

The concept of radiation therapy is not difficult to explain. The Bethesda, MD-based National Cancer Institute (NCI) describes it as "the treatment of disease using penetrating beams of high-energy waves or streams of particles called radiation." Specific amounts of radiation aimed at cancer cells either kill the cells or keep them from growing or dividing.

Education about radiation therapy for patients who will undergo the procedure is not so simple because the method of treatment varies depending upon the type of cancer, its location, and its size.

"Not all patients get the same type of radiation therapy," says Beth Archer, RN, BSN, oncology nurse specialist in radiation therapy at Riverside Radiation Oncology in Columbus, OH. Education on radiation therapy for someone with brain cancer is different than the teaching that someone undergoing radiation for breast cancer would receive. Yet there are basic steps to the education that can be followed.

A good strategy on education for radiation therapy is important because more than half of all people with cancer are treated with some form of radiation, according to NCI.

Like surgery, radiation therapy is a local treatment affecting the cancer cells in a specific area of the body. Radiation often is used in conjunction with surgery to shrink a tumor before the operation so it is easier for the surgeon to remove it or following surgery to prevent the growth of any cancerous cells that remain.

Radiation is sometimes combined with treatments that reach all parts of the body as well, such as chemotherapy, to improve results. For many patients, radiation therapy is the only cancer treatment their oncologist recommends.

At Riverside Radiation Oncology, education begins before the consultation to discuss treatment options with the physician. At that time, patients are given a day planner that has sections to track doctor’s appointments, the results of lab work, and weight gain or loss.

There also is a section to write down all medications prescribed, the name of the physician who ordered it, the reason for taking it, along with the dosages and how often they should be taken. The date the patient started taking the medication is recorded, and if they stop taking it, that date also is noted. The notes help the patient communicate with each physician on the health care team.

The planner has a general overview of the diagnosis of cancer and information on cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, as well as their possible side effects. Also, there is a glossary of medical terms and a section with the telephone numbers for all cancer services and libraries at the health care facility, as well as good web sites for cancer information.

Tailoring education to patient

Education is personalized by providing patients with handouts for the planner that are specific to the cancer that he or she has and its treatment. For example, if patients were having radiation therapy for the abdomen, they would receive a handout on radiation for that specific area. They also receive a handout on the possible side effects of radiation, such as skin irritation, fatigue, and loss of appetite.

"Patients can review the information when they get home. It is a good reference for them later," says Archer.

The handouts complement one-on-one education about the radiation therapy a patient will receive. The procedure not only is explained in detail, but patients usually are shown the equipment that will be used, such as the machine that aims specific amounts of radiation at tumors. They learn what the first treatment will be like and how the following treatments will differ, if there is any difference.

Radiation therapy can be either external, with a machine directing the energy rays, or internal where the radiation source, sealed in an implant, is placed inside the body.

"It is important to give the specifics before patients have radiation therapy so they understand what will happen. Our doctors are good at explaining that, too," says Archer. Patients also are given their treatment schedule.

In addition to the explanation of the radiation therapy process, patients need to know the different disciplines involved in their therapy. The team may include a radiation physicist who oversees the equipment, a dosimetrist who helps calculate the amount of radiation to be delivered, and a radiation therapist who positions the patient for treatment and runs the equipment. The team also could include the patient’s physician, oncologist, radiation oncologist, and the nurse that coordinates the care and provides education.

"We try to help the patient know what each team members involvement will be in their care," says Archer.

On return visits, patients receive additional help with any side effects they may be experiencing. For example, if they were losing weight due to loss of appetite, they would be given sheets with high-calorie recipes for such items as milkshakes and smoothies.


For more information about radiation therapy education at OhioHealth Cancer Services, contact:

  • Beth Archer, RN, BSN, Oncology Nurse Specialist, Radiation Therapy, Riverside Radiation Oncology in Columbus, OH. Telephone: (614) 566-5717. E-mail: