Radiation Therapy

At UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, we believe parents and guardians can contribute to the success of radiation treatment and invite you to participate. Please read the following information to learn about this therapy and how you can help.

Fast Facts About Radiation Therapy

  • Your child’s radiation therapy will be done at UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.
  • Each child’s treatment is designed especially for him or her by the oncologist.
  • Radiation therapy is usually an outpatient procedure and is always done in the morning, Monday through Friday. Your child will be able to go home immediately afterward.
  • Each treatment should take between 5 and 15 minutes.
  • Your child will experience no pain during the treatment.
  • When sedation is needed, there are special rules for eating and drinking in the hours before your child has radiation therapy.  Sedation may be needed if your child is too young to lie still during therapy.

What is Radiation Therapy?

Radiation therapy is used to treat cancer. Powerful x-rays are used to destroy cancer cells or make them unable to grow and divide. During the treatment, a powerful beam of energy is directed to the part of your child’s body that is being treated. It is produced by a machine called a linear accelerator (LIN-ee-ur ak-SELL-er-a-tor). A linear accelerator allows a patient to be treated from any angle. Your child will lie on a table and the machine will rotate around the table to the exact point where the radiation will be applied.

 The machine will be about 3 feet from your child’s body and will not touch your child while he or she is receiving treatment. It does not make any noise.

 Because radiation can also damage healthy cells, your child will have his or her therapy throughout the week with breaks from treatment on the weekend. These weekend breaks will give the healthy cells a chance to recover.

 The dose of your child’s radiation will be designed specifically for him or her.


Before your child begins radiation therapy, he or she will come to the hospital for “simulation.” Simulation is a practice step in preparing for your child’s radiation treatments. It makes sure the treatments are given exactly to the areas prescribed by your child’s oncologist. Sometimes it will be done in the same location in the hospital that your child will receive his or her treatments. Simulation is often done in the diagnostic department on the second floor of Children’s Hospital. Your child will be asked to lie on an x-ray table in the same position that he or she will be in for the actual radiation therapy.

  • A CT scan will be taken of the area to receive radiation.  A CT scan uses x-rays and computers to make an image of the inside of the body. During the CT scan your child will lie on an exam table that moves through a machine that looks like a giant inner tube or doughnut.
  • A radiation therapist will mark the treatment area with an ink marker. These marks are often referred to as “tattoos.” They tell the technician exactly where to apply the radiation for every treatment.
  • If your child is having radiation therapy to the head, these marks will be made on a “mask” made out of a soft, transparent plastic. The plastic is softened with warm water so that it can be formed to fit your child’s head and face. Your child will wear this “mask” each time he or she receives radiation therapy.
  • The marks will be covered with translucent tape. They are difficult to wash off.
  • Simulation may take up to 1 hour.

After simulation, the radiation oncologist determines the type, amount, and depth of radiation, as well as the number of treatments your child will need.

Preparing for Radiation Treatments

  • Your child should not use moisturizers on the skin on the morning of a radiation treatment.
  • Unless your child is having anesthesia, he or she can eat a normal breakfast before coming to the hospital for treatment.


If your child requires any type of sedation for his or her treatment, your doctor will provide you with additional information on eating and drinking before radiation treatments.

Radiation Treatments

  • Once your child has registered, you and your child will go to the radiation oncology department in the subbasement of Children’s Hospital.
  • If your child is having radiation therapy to the head, leg, or arm, he or she will most likely not have to change clothes. If your child is a preteen or teen and having treatment to the chest or pelvic area, he or she may be asked to change into a hospital gown.
  • He or she will be taken to the treatment room and asked to lie still on a treatment couch.
  • Your child will be in the treatment room alone. The rooms are comfortable and painted in cheerful colors. Parents are asked to stay in a waiting room area. Technicians will be able to see and speak to your child on an intercom and TV camera with a monitor.

Children’s Hospital takes every precaution to make sure your child is safe. Usually children under the age of 7 will have a strap around them for safety while on the table.


Your child will have no pain during the radiation treatment.

After Radiation Treatments

Your child will be able to go home and resume normal activity right after the radiation treatment.

Side Effects

Your child’s doctor will discuss with you any side effects that may develop. Side effects depend on the location of the treated area, the number of treatments, and the dose.  Your child may have redness in the area receiving radiation about 1 to 2 weeks into the treatment. Other common side effects are:

  • hair loss if the scalp is in the radiation beam
  • nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea if the abdomen is being treated
  • increased sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures, and to the sun, on the area being treated 
  • a sore throat and mouth dryness if your child is having radiation therapy to the head and neck area

These side effects will get better as the effects of the radiation wear off 1 to 2 weeks after treatment ends.  Diarrhea and vomiting should go away within a couple of days after treatment ends.

Your child’s doctor may prescribe medicine to help with an upset stomach or recommend special creams to treat skin reactions.

Skin Care During Radiation Therapy

It is common for the skin to become red or darker during radiation therapy. The amount of skin redness or irritation depends on the part of the body being treated and the dose of radiation your child is receiving.

Following are recommendations for skin care during radiation therapy:

  • Apply unscented moisturizer to the skin in the area being treated, as directed by your nurse. Continue to moisturize the skin for at least a month after treatments are completed.
  • Protect the skin in and around the treatment areas from extremely hot or cold temperatures with soft, lightweight clothing.
  • Apply a PABA-free sunscreen with a minimum sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 routinely to the treatment site whenever your child is outdoors for more than 10 minutes during the summer or winter.
  • Do not use a heating pad, hot water bottle, or ice pack on the treatment area.
  • Protect the treated area from chemicals, such as cleaning products, which can cause irritation.
  • Your child should only take one short bath or shower each day. Use warm water, rather than hot, to prevent the skin from becoming dry.
  • Use mild, moisturizing soaps (such as unscented Dove) that do not contain perfume or fragrances. Do not use deodorant soaps that can dry the skin.
  • Pat the skin at the treatment area dry, rather than rubbing it, after bathing or showering.
  • Do not use tape, bandages, or medicated patches in the treatment area.
  • Check your child’s skin at the treatment site daily. Report any changes to your child’s doctor.

If your child is receiving chemotherapy during or after his or her radiation treatments, the skin may become red each time. This reaction is called “recall.” The body is remembering that it had radiation therapy.

  • Be sure to tell your child’s chemotherapy doctor about these skin changes.

When to Call the Doctor

Your child will see his or her doctor at least once a week during radiation treatments.
You should call the doctor if your child has any of the following symptoms:

  • fever
  • blistered, swollen, or tender areas of skin in and around the treatment area
  • pain or itching that is not helped by prescribed medications 
  • any new or unusual symptoms


You will be given a card with the phone number of your radiation oncologist; you may call with questions any time.

Special Needs

If your child has any special needs or health issues you feel the doctor needs to know about, please call the Department of Radiation Oncology at UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh before the treatment and ask to speak with a nurse. It is important to notify us in advance about any special needs your child might have.

Where Can I Get This Test?

Department of Pediatric Radiation Oncology 
UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh
One Children’s Hospital Drive
4401 Penn Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15224