How to Prep for an External Radiation Treatment

How to Prep for an External Radiation Treatment

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21

External radiation is something of a paradox: the treatments themselves are short, sometimes just minutes long, but depending on your treatment protocol, you might be heading to the hospital as often as five times a week for up to six weeks. This kind of travel (and the accompanying logistics and expenses) can be tiring and stressful, so you’ll need all the support and comfort you can gather during this time.

What to wear

Start simple, with wardrobe. The question of what to wear is far from a frivolous concern, as your clothing can have a big impact on your comfort and your mindset. Because your healthy cells (like skin cells) have an inflammatory response to radiation, treatments can cause skin issues ranging from sensitivity to burns, so loose, cozy garments in natural fibers like cotton or bamboo are your best bets, with layers to account for sometimes-freezing treatment rooms. 
Depending on the area of your body that is receiving treatment, you may need to partially or fully undress—ask your doctor ahead of time if this will be the case so that you can plan accordingly by wearing clothes that are easy to change or pull away from the treatment area. In deference to skin sensitivity, avoid wearing jewelry and tight clothing; if you wear a bra, skip an underwire bra in favor of a soft bralette with wide straps; and don’t use any creams, oils, lotions or perfumes on your body (unless you’ve checked with your doc ahead of time and have gotten the go-ahead).

What to bring

Your go-bag for external radiation can be pretty minimal, since your visits won’t take very long. A soft blanket or sweater, a small bag of snacks, a bottle of water, and something to keep your mind occupied in the waiting area are the basics you’ll need for a streamlined gear bag. 
You’ll want to make sure you have a hat or head covering and sunglasses to protect your skin from the sun on your way home (even in your car), because recently-radiated skin is incredibly sensitive to UV and must be protected. A hat and headscarf combo (worn with the scarf wrapped around the hat and around your face, snowboarder-style) is a good option. If your radiation treatments will be administered to your face, head, or neck, it’s worth considering having a UV protectant tint put on your windshield (if available where you are), because sensitivity to sun in your treatment area can last for about a year.

Who to bring

A trusted caregiver can have a huge impact on the lived experience of receiving radiation treatment. Whether you choose a friend, a spouse, or a family member, think carefully about who you ask for help. We all have some loved ones who want to help but may not be the most sensitive in how they talk to you, and this is not the time for you to have to work on patience. 
Ideally, you need someone who is great at practical help—the person who shows up 5 minutes early with the directions already programmed into the GPS and a hot cup of tea waiting for you—and who also has the emotional literacy to understand that their desire to give you a pep talk about silver linings is probably mis-timed. Think about who brings you comfort and whom you can be most at ease around, and ask that person to come to treatment with you. If you think they’re too busy, ask anyway. The worst thing they can say is no, and you might be surprised at how much people want to show up for you.

Mental prep

It’s a tired cliché that your attitude is the only thing you can ever fully control, but it’s also an undeniable nugget of truth. Radiation treatment is hard. It is expensive, stressful, and often comes with painful side effects. Cancer is hard. It is terrifying, isolating, and world-altering. These are truths. And yet—acceptance is the most powerful tool you can arm yourself with, mindset wise. Thinking of peace, calm, and acceptance as your tools to help you walk through this experience, seek the things that give you those feelings, and hold onto them.
Whether it’s meditation, yoga, CBD, time with friends, or spiritual connection, identify the actions that fill you with confidence and allow you to put your fear on the shelf for a little while. Then, do those things every day. Think of them as part of your protocol: as your body receives treatment at the hospital, your mind and spirit get treatment through your self-care practices.

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