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Myths and Truths About Radiation Oncology


By Kyle M. Stang, MD, Radiation Oncologist, OSF Cancer Center, Bloomington

Radiation therapy is a common treatment for many types of cancer, as well as for some benign conditions. There are many myths and misconceptions regarding radiation therapy. Below are five of the most common ones and the facts that can help you learn more about this topic.

Myth #1:  Radiation Therapy Is Painful
Receiving radiation therapy itself is not painful. It’s similar to the experience of undergoing an x-ray or CT scan. Depending on your type of cancer and the area being targeted, it is possible that the side effects may cause some discomfort or pain. Radiation therapy may also relieve some cancer-related pain.

Myth #2:  Radiation Is Contagious
The most common form of radiation therapy, external beam radiation therapy (EBRT), does not make you radioactive after it is delivered. So you will not be “contagious,” and will not be a risk to family members or pets. Other types of treatment that use radiation, such as radioactive iodine or certain types of internal radiation or brachytherapy, include precautions for limiting contact with others. Your radiation oncologist will be able to review this with you in detail.

Myth #3:  Radiation Therapy Will Burn My Skin
Overall, with modern technology, radiation-related skin reactions are less common. They correspond with the area being treated and how close the radiation target is to the skin surface. If the radiation target is deep beneath the skin, a skin reaction is less common. However if it is closer to the surface, there may be a higher dose of radiation near the skin and a higher risk of a skin reaction. Your radiation oncologist will be able to discuss your specific risk of a skin reaction and the appropriate management if it does occur.

Myth #4:  Radiation Therapy Will Make Me Lose My Hair
The side effects of radiation therapy are generally limited to only the area being targeted. For example, if the scalp or brain is the radiation target, hair loss can occur. Similarly, patients receiving radiation therapy for head and neck cancer can lose facial hair. However, patients would not be expected to lose the hair on their head when receiving radiation to the abdomen or breast, for example.

Myth #5:  Radiation Will Make Me Sick
Radiation therapy is a “local treatment” where the effects are focused on that region of the body being targeted. For example, patients receiving radiation to the brain or abdomen may experience nausea or vomiting, but this would generally not be expected for a patient receiving radiation for breast cancer. Your radiation oncologist and treatment team will be able to discuss your specific risk of these symptoms and the appropriate management if they occur.

It is important to be well-educated regarding your treatment to make informed decisions as a patient. These are just a few of the most common myths regarding radiation therapy. Your oncology team, including your radiation oncologist, will take the time to thoroughly explain your diagnosis, available treatment options, and their risks, benefits, and side effects. If you have questions or concerns, never hesitate to reach out to your oncology team.

For more information about OSF cancer services, go to or call the OSF Cancer Center in Bloomington at (309) 661-5240.