The time that cancer treatment takes can seem to go very slowly. Not only do some people receiving radiation and other cancer treatments have to deal with physical pain, people during this experience often commonly end up facing depression, anxiety, and a range of other difficult emotions. As a result, it’s common to wonder exactly how long radiation treatment will end up taking.
The short answer is that the amount of time required to provide radiation is short. The process takes only between 1 to 5 minutes for you to receive an actual dosage. Meanwhile, you can end up being in the treatment room for anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour. It ends up taking around 20 to 30 minutes on average for radiation treatment because patients also must check in, get queued by the machine, and ensure that the equipment is appropriately lined up. Patients are often just as curious about how long the overall length of treatment is. Treatment tends to take between six to nine weeks. Many questions and issues arise when giving a patient an idea about how long they can expect treatment to last, though.
Delays are to Be Expected
Delays commonly occur at any time while you are receiving radiation. As a result, it’s a good idea to remember that there may be occasions where treatment will take longer than you anticipate. The time your treatment takes will be calculated before you start. Most times, the length of treatment ends up staying the same. Your medical team will also work with you to create a schedule that best matches your needs. Things can end up, though. In these situations, you should make sure to inform your medical team if you plan on either being late or missing an appointment. This is often not a desirable thing to do, though. To make sure that you receive the maximum effectiveness of radiation treatment, you should make sure that you receive all suggested dosages. If you do end up missing a radiation appointment, you will likely need to compensate by adding dosage to the end of your schedule.
How Long You Can Expect Individual treatment Sessions to Last
The length of radiation depends on the nature of the cancer. A deeper tumor might necessitate a more focused beam for a shorter period. Meanwhile, larger and more shallow cancerous masses might be treated by the same type of focused beam for a longer window of time. The location of a tumor as well as how close it is to other sensitive body parts and tissue will influence a radiation session. The only way to specifically quantify the length of a radiation session is with the extensive analysis involved with planning for radiation treatment. A person’s general health can also end up impacting planning for radiation, which is why it is a good idea to speak with your medical team about this question.
Why Radiation Is Not Provided All at Once
Radiation treatment cannot be given all at once to eliminate a cancerous mass in a person because delivering radiation in such a manner would present a substantial danger to a person’s healthy tissues as well as greatly raise the chances that a person ends up experiencing side effects associated with the treatment process. Instead of dosing all at once, medical professionals have discovered that spreading out the dosage over weeks into radiation “fractions” is a more advantageous way to keep a patient as healthy as possible, preserve the healthiness of regular cells in the body, and reduce the risk of side effects.
In most situations, radiation treatment is given to a person while they are an outpatient for a period between six to nine weeks. The radiation treatment will be given Monday through Friday, but not given on weekends. The weekend affords radiation patients an opportunity to make sure they are fully rested and give normal cells in the patient’s body the opportunity to recover.
Your medical team will prescribe a total dosage which is then divided into smaller portions. The amount of radiation you receive will be measured by centigray or cGY. Dosage is given each day and then repeated over many days until it adds up to the total amount. Fractions can be given in different ways. Some of the most common types of fractions used in cancer treatment include:
- Conventional fractionation lasts for 6 to 7 weeks
- Hyperfractionation lasts for the same window as conventional fractionation but is given in smaller doses
- Hypofractionation which is given over a shorter window than conventional radiation
- Accelerated fractionation which is given over a shorter window in smaller doses than conventional fractionation
- Palliative treatment fractionation is given to address symptoms in incurable cancer
The exact time and amount of radiation treatment provided changes between patients. Some of the various factors that end up influencing the total dosage of radiation as well as how frequently a patient receives radiation treatment include:
- The size of the cancerous mass
- The location of the cancer
- Rather the treatment is given to prolong life or eliminate the cancer
- The patient’s general health
- The patient’s medical history
- What other types of cancer treatment are received by the patient
Different Body Parts Can Receive Different Amounts of Radiation
The amount of radiation that a person’s body can experience for a treated area depends heavily on what part of the body is receiving the dosage of radiation. Different organs and tissues in our bodies have different degrees of sensitivity to radiation. Progression in the field of radiation treatment has let medical providers deliver increased radiation in focus areas based on individual patients as well as the nature of the cancerous mass. Patients, however, can have lifetime dosage limits for one part of their body. This means that a person might not be able to receive radiation in one area, but would be able to receive radiation in another location of their body.
Schedules Can Vary Outside Average Windows
Different schedules sometimes apply and patients end up receiving cancer treatment for a length that is outside these average windows. If your medical team is focused on alleviating symptoms brought on by cancer, you can expect the total amount of radiation that you receive to be lower. Sometimes in these situations, radiation is only given for three weeks. In other situations, a person receiving treatment might be given radiation twice or more a day for a certain period. Additionally, some patients are given a much longer time off than the weekend to recuperate because their body needs a longer period to heal between rounds of radiation.
Altered schedules sometimes consist of more than one treatment a day, which is given over a shorter time window between 6 to 6 and a half weeks. This is typically reserved for more aggressive types of cancer. Another unique type of radiation treatment schedule is one a day, four days a week. These altered schedules are connected with increased chances of curing cancer by lowering the overall treatment by a week to a week and a half. These altered schedules can also end up lowering the possibility of late side effects by reducing how much dosage is given for each treatment.
What You Can (And Can’t) Do During This Time
One of the most common reasons why patients ask how long radiation will take is that the patient is worried that radiation treatment will substantially disrupt the patient’s life. Consider how treatment might impact some of the following areas of your life:
- Many people find themselves able to work while they receive radiation treatment. Some people work during the first weeks of treatment, but find themselves needing to take time off at the end of treatment due to the side effects that they end up experiencing. Whether you’re able to work during treatment will be influenced by a range of factors including what type of radiation you receive and how much radiation is given.
- Sexual intercourse. In most cases, you can still have sexual intercourse during radiation therapy. Whether you can have intercourse will be influenced by the location of the treatment and your general health. You must use a type of birth control during radiation if you’re able to conceive children.
- You should restrict your alcohol intake as much as possible when receiving any type of cancer treatment. If you are receiving radiation to your upper body, drinking alcohol during treatment can even result in irritation and other side effects. If you are receiving medical treatment for another part of your body, you should speak with your medical team before you take alcohol.
- Time outside. You can spend time outside during radiation, but you should cover the area being treated if it is exposed and it is sunny outside. You should also use sunscreen and wear sun-appropriate clothing.
- Prescription medication. You are often permitted to continue taking prescribed medication while receiving radiation treatment. You should make sure to speak with your medical team about the different types of medications you are receiving to avoid any undesirable drug interactions, though.
- Patients are often allowed to exercise during radiation treatment, provided the patient does not jump into a new rigorous routine. Many people discover that they feel better and tolerate treatment better if they keep up their exercise routine. Due to the marks placed on your skin, however, radiation treatment can prevent people from swimming.
Why You Should Avoid Ending Radiation Treatment Early
People receiving radiation treatment are often tempted to end the process early. Not only do patients feel that this will keep them in temporary better shape, but people also might be eager to return to how life was before cancer. People who miss radiation therapy while being treated for cancer, however, have a much higher cancer of their disease ultimately returning. This remains a danger even if the patient ends up completing the number of radiation rounds suggested eventually.
Studies reveal that many patients who did not receive two more of the radiation treatment appointments for which they were scheduled ended up facing undesirable results. A sizable portion of these patients ended up having their cancer recur, while an even larger portion passed away from cancer. Scientists ultimately determined that patients who did not comply with radiation therapy schedules had an elevated danger of the disease returning and passing away due to the illness.
Some reason why the risk of recurrence is raised, scientists report, is due to tumor repopulation, which happens when cancer cells remain after cessation in treatment dividing at an increased rate. For many types of cancers involved in this study, previous reports suggested that tumor repopulation did not substantially impact the recurrence of cancer and survival, though. Not complying with a proposed radiation treatment schedule, the scientists note, can also act as a greater warning sign for additional risk factors that negatively impact a patient’s outcome including the absence of social support, untreated mental health needs, and lack of compliance with other types of cancer treatment.
In the study, scientists did not locate independent effects of factors like age, race, gender, or socioeconomic status, and the impact of these factors on the risk of recurrence and a person’s chances of survival after noncompliance was considered.
The results of these studies have led many cancer facilities to make sure that patients return for the next treatment on a weekly and daily basis by asking the patient why they missed out on a session. Based on the answers provided by a patient, the medical team can suggest referrals to a mental health professional, transportation workers, or other support. By treating these issues promptly, medical teams are better able to help patients remain compliant with treatment schedules.
Side Effects Following Treatment
While patients can expect treatment to last a certain time, they should anticipate having to deal with side effects for a period longer than treatment. As a result, a patient might be left to face side effects weeks or months after treatment. Other serious radiation side effects do not appear until months or even years after treatment. Acute side effects associated with radiation often go away within 14 days following treatment. Meanwhile, long-term effects including skin ulcers and bone generation take a much longer period to show up. These complications can leave patients dealing with issues that are painful and frustrating even after radiation has ended.
Based on the type of cancer that a person has, an individual will receive one of two types of radiation therapy. External beam radiation therapy utilizes a large machine to send radiation into the cancerous mass in a patient’s body. This equipment never touches a person’s body, but instead moves around the individual delivering radiation to the cancerous body parts. External beam radiation is the type of radiation most often given to patients. Internal radiation therapy is also sometimes given to patients. Internal radiation therapy utilizes a liquid or solid source of radiation to deliver radiation inside a person’s body. Provided solid radiation is utilized, only a certain portion of a person’s body will be targeted. If liquid radiation is utilized, it is viewed as a systemic therapy that travels through a person’s blood into tissues throughout the body.
In addition to the type of radiation that a person receives, other factors including the patient’s age and general health will influence how quickly they recover from radiation. Most people, fortunately, end up recovering from radiation within several weeks, while other people encounter more serious injuries that can take months from which to heal. Some of the most common side effects that you can be left to face over the weeks or months following radiation exposure include:
- Radiation is so powerful that it can weaken a person’s bones and result in bone diseases like osteonecrosis or osteoporosis. Because bones are living as well as growing organisms, radiation can harm the healthy cells in bones and prevent their growth. Consequently, a person’s bones are often at great risk of fracturing or breaking after radiation treatment.
- In the same way that disrupts your bones, radiation treatment can also negatively impact the cells found in a person’s bladder and bowel. An individual might encounter things like blood in the urine or other bladder issues that are painful and substantially disrupt that individual’s life.
- Radiation often leads to painful burns across a person’s body. When radiation passes through the skin, it can result in free radicals which end up damaging DNA as well as injuring the skin and leading to inflammation. Burns are such a common occurrence after radiation that approximately 85% of people who receive the therapy end up encountering them. Furthermore, due to the body’s stunted ability to heal following cancer treatment, skin damage can end up lasting for an extended period including months or even years. Burns to your skin can take a variety of forms from radiation, but patients most often end up expecting blistering, moistness and peeling.