Definition and Overview
A radiotherapy consultation is the first step in seeking radiation therapy. This is provided by a radiation oncologist who is part of the patient’s medical care team. Since this is the first visit the patient will make to a particular doctor, no radiotherapy treatment will be performed.
Radiotherapy is one of the treatment options available to people who are suffering from cancer. Even in cases where the cancer is incurable, this procedure is still effective in controlling the symptoms that patients feel as a result of their condition. The treatment aims to destroy cancer cells using high-energy radiation that causes them to sink.
A consultation with a radiotherapy specialist will give patients a chance to ask any questions they may have regarding the procedure. The appointment usually takes an hour or two, during which the patient’s medical history, medications, previous test results, and current condition will be discussed. It is also normal for the doctor to perform a physical examination during this visit. At the end of the appointment, the patient should have a clear idea about radiotherapy and its risks and benefits for his condition.
Who Should Undergo and Expected Results
Any patient who is considering radiotherapy as one of his treatment options should undergo a radiotherapy consultation. This applies to patients who are suffering from:
- Benign tumors
- Thyroid disease
- Blood-related diseases
The initial radiotherapy consultation is important for many reasons:
- The patient can assess how comfortable he is with the radiation oncologist.
- The patient will be informed about the benefits and risks of radiotherapy, so he can carefully consider whether it is the best treatment option for him.
- The radiation oncologist will be given the chance to familiarize himself with the patient’s case, so that he can prescribe the correct treatment plan.
At the end of the visit, the patient should be equipped with all the details he requires in order to make an informed decision about whether to go ahead with the treatment or to consider other options, such as chemotherapy.
If the patient decides, based on the information provided during the consultation as well as his discussion with the radiation oncologist, that radiotherapy is the correct choice of treatment for him, his following appointments will be scheduled for treatment to begin promptly. He will also be asked to sign a consent form that confirms his decision to go through with the treatment.
A radiotherapy consultation is typically followed by a simulation visit, during which the specific method of administering the radiation to the cancer cells as well as the proper dosage or level of radiation that will be used will be planned in detail. Since radiation treatments are customizable to each patient’s unique case due to the varying sizes and locations of cancer cells, the simulation visit plays a key role in the process.
On the other hand, a patient is free to decide against undergoing radiation therapy even after having a consultation, and he is also free to get a second opinion by scheduling another consultation with a different radiotherapist. This way, he can explore all his options. Undergoing a consultation in no way places the patient under an obligation to push through with the treatment.
How the Procedure is Done?
A radiotherapy consultation normally takes one to two hours, and takes place at the radiation oncologist’s office or clinic. However, it is best to show up at the office or clinic ahead of schedule. Also, patients should expect to spend some time waiting while the oncologist reviews the information presented to him. Thus, the patient should allot sufficient time for the appointment; this way, the radiation oncologist can freely discuss all pertinent details and the patient can ask any questions he may have regarding the procedure.
The consultation usually includes:
- A physical examination
- A review of the patient’s medical history
- An assessment of the patient’s test and imaging scan results
- A review of the patient’s current medication plan
- Discussion of radiation therapy as a treatment option
- Analysis of the risks and benefits of radiation therapy
Patients are advised to bring:
- List of medications
- Lab test results
- Imaging scan results
- Insurance information
- Referral or request forms
If any additional tests are required for the radiation oncologist to be able to make a clear assessment of the patient’s condition, these are arranged for a later time.
Patients are often encouraged to do two things prior to their radiotherapy consultation.
- List down their questions
- Bring a family member or friend as support
Two of the most important questions that patients should ask are:
- What are the side effects of radiation treatment?
- How will these side effects be managed?
Possible Risks and Complications
Since no tests or scans will be performed during a radiotherapy consultation, there is absolutely no risk involved. In fact, this visit will allow the radiation oncologist and the patient to discuss the risks associated with radiotherapy.
However, if the patient pushes through with radiation therapy, he will face certain risks, such as:
- Skin irritation
- Dry mouth
- Mouth sores
- Sore gums
- Jaw stiffness
- Tooth decay
- Difficulty swallowing
- Shortness of breath
- Breast tenderness
- Rectal bleeding
- Reduced sperm count or sperm activity
- Menstruation changes
The side effects that patients will experience during treatment tend to differ in each case. These are generally affected by the location of the cancer cells. For example, radiation therapy in the abdominal area is likely to cause diarrhea, whereas radiation therapy in the pelvic area is likely to cause sexual or fertility problems.
In addition, there are other possible complications, such as:
There is also a risk of damaging nearby healthy cells in the process of destroying the cancerous cells.
These risks and possible complications make it more important to have a thorough discussion with the radiation oncologist before going ahead with the treatment. Discussing all important details with the doctor who will be primarily responsible for the entire treatment process can greatly help in preventing any of these risks and complications from arising when the treatment begins.
Zemen EM, Schreiber EC, Tepper JE. Basics of radiation therapy. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, et al., eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2013:chap 27.
National Cancer Institute. Radiation therapy and you: support for people who have cancer. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/radiation-therapy-and-you. Accessed May 29, 2014.