Radiation

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy (also called radiation oncology) uses special kinds of energy waves or particles to fight cancer. Like surgery, radiation therapy is used in several ways depending on the type and location of the cancer. Certain levels of radiation work to destroy cancer cells or prevent cells from growing or reproducing. This treatment may provide a cure for cancer, control the disease, or help relieve its symptoms.

Although each hospital may have specific protocols, radiation therapy usually begins with these procedures:

  • Simulation process. After a physical examination and a review of your child's medical history, the treatment team "maps" out the position your child will be in for each treatment and the exact location on your child's body (referred to as treatment field or port) where the radiation will be given (the simulation process). Sometimes, the area on your child's body that requires treatment will be marked to make sure radiation is given properly. The treatment team may also make molds, headrests, or other devices that help to position your child during your treatment. Imaging studies may also be performed during the simulation process to help plan how to direct the radiation during treatments.

  • Treatment plan. Once the simulation process is completed, the radiation oncologist will determine your child's treatment plan, including the type of machine to use, the amount of radiation that is needed, and the number of treatments that will be given.

What are the different types of radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is given through different methods, depending on the type of cancer, the location of the cancer, and the patient's health. Sometimes, radiation therapy is used in combination with other treatments. The following are some of the different types of radiation therapy with brief explanations of their goals:

  • External radiation (external beam therapy). With external radiation (external beam therapy), radiation is administered by a large machine that points the energy waves directly at the tumor. The radiation therapist controls the machine. Since radiation is used to kill cancer cells, special shields may be made to protect the tissue surrounding the treatment area. Radiation treatments are painless and usually last a few minutes.

  • Internal radiation (brachytherapy, implant radiation). With internal radiation (brachytherapy, implant radiation), a high dose of radiation is given inside the body as close to the cancer as possible. The radiation treatment may be swallowed, injected, or implanted directly into the tumor. Some of the radioactive implants are called seeds or capsules. Internal radiation involves administering a higher dose of radiation in a shorter time span when compared with external radiation. Some internal radiation treatments stay in the body temporarily; other internal treatments stay in the body permanently, although the radioactive substance loses its radiation within a short period of time. In some cases, both internal and external radiation therapies are used.

What are the side effects of radiation therapy?

The side effects of radiation depend on the dose and location, and if it is internal or external. Before receiving radiation for treatment of cancer, many tests may be performed to evaluate the baseline (pretreatment) function of heart, kidneys, lungs, eyes, ears and reproductive organs. Some radiation may affect the function of these organs either during treatment or months to years after treatment. Some treatment may affect fertility. The side effects usually relate to the area of the body that is receiving the radiation treatments. Potential side effects may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Hair loss (also called alopecia). Hair loss may occur if radiation therapy of the head is given. After treatment is completed, most children's hair will grow back.

  • Bone growth. Bone growth may also be affected, especially with young children who are still having significant bone growth. Height stature and/or limbs may be shortened because of the effect of radiation.

  • Skin changes. The skin may be more sensitive, reddened, or irritated after having radiation. Skin care is an important part of radiation treatment. Skin changes are short-term effects of radiation. Your child's doctor will explain the necessary prevention and treatment of any skin problems related to radiation.

  • Diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. If radiation therapy of the pelvis or abdomen is given, a child may experience diarrhea, nausea, and/or vomiting.

  • Fatigue. Extreme tiredness called fatigue is common with radiation therapy. It may get worse as treatment goes on and can last for months after treatment ends.

Applicable Conditions

Applicable Conditions

Retinoblastoma

Retinoblastoma is a rare cancer of the retina (the innermost layer of the eye, located at the back of the eye, that receives light and images necessary for vision).

Rhabdomyosarcoma

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a cancerous tumor that originates in the soft tissues of the body, including the muscles, tendons, and connective tissues.

Soft Tissue Sarcoma

Soft tissue sarcoma is a type of cancer that grows in soft tissues that support and connect parts of the body.

Germ Cell Tumors

Germ cell tumors are malignant (cancerous) or nonmalignant (benign, noncancerous) tumors that are comprised mostly of germ cells.

Hodgkin Lymphoma

Hodgkin lymphoma is a type of cancer in the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is part of the immune system and functions to fight disease and infections. The lymphatic system also helps maintain the fluid balance in different parts of the body by bringing excess fluid back into the bloodstream.

Brain Tumors

Brain tumors are the most common solid tumors in children.

Bone Tumors

Children’s National Health System has a team of individuals who are highly skilled and experienced in the treatment of bone tumors, including osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma.

Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma

Our cancer team specializes in treating rare cancers like nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Learn more about its causes and treatments

Neuroblastoma

Neuroblastoma is a cancerous tumor that begins in nerve tissue of infants and very young children.

Melanoma

Skin cancer is a malignant tumor that grows in the skin cells.

Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

NHL is cancer in the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is part of the immune system and functions to fight disease and infections.

Leukemia

Leukemia is the most common form of pediatric cancer. It affects approximately 3,250 children each year in the US, accounting for about 30 percent of childhood cancers. It can occur at any age, although it is most commonly seen in children between 2 and 6 years of age.

Children's Team

Children's Team

Providers

Children's Locations that Perform this Procedure

Children's Locations that Perform this Procedure

Treatment Service Locations

main hospital

Main Hospital

111 Michigan Avenue, NW
Washington, District of Columbia 20010

Show more Locations
Our Stories

Our Stories

Patient story

Elias's Story Part Three

"As a parent of young children, you know that kids will do the darndest things. So do the best you can, keep your eyes open, but don't beat yourself up if you have to get a new broviac."

Patient story

Elias's Story Part Two

"One positive thing I have to say about this process is that the rotation of Children's attending physicians for the oncology inpatient unit is outstanding, and the fellows also are very good. They were accessible (by phone, too, when we were at home), understanding, and of course knowledgeable."

Alexx's Story

After a battle with cancer, her 16th birthday is even sweeter.

Patient story

Elias's Story

"No matter whom we saw on any day, we always felt Eli had a roomful of experts behind him."

Invest in future cures for some of life's most devastating diseases

See other ways to give

Keep in touch with Children's National by signing up for our newsletters.

Sign up now

Children's National in Your Neighborhood

A location marker

Did you know Children’s National has more than 50 locations throughout the region? Find one that’s convenient for your family.

Find a Children's Location Near You