Many people with cancer will have radiotherapy as part of their treatment.
- Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays, gamma rays or electrons to kill cancer cells in a specific part of the body.
- Radiotherapy only affects the cells and tissues within a specific area (unlike chemo, which affects the whole body).
- Normal, healthy cells are also better able to resist the radiation, which is why your body may recover from the effects of radiotherapy faster.
Why is radiotherapy used?
- To cure: Many cancers can be cured by radiotherapy on its own.
- To control: If a cure is not possible, radiotherapy may be given to control the cancer. In this case the aim is to make the cancer smaller and stop it from spreading.
- To relieve symptoms: Sometimes it’s not possible to control cancer, but radiotherapy can be used to relieve symptoms such as pain, to make life more comfortable.
- To help other treatments: Radiotherapy can be used to assist another treatment, such as surgery or chemotherapy. This is called adjuvant therapy.
Adjuvant radiotherapy may be used before your main treatment, to make a cancer smaller, or after the main treatment to stop the growth of remaining cancer cells.
How is radiotherapy given?
- Each radiotherapy treatment is called a fraction. Giving the treatment in separate daily fractions means that less damage is done to normal cells and there will be fewer side effects.
- It is usually done through an outpatients department once or twice a day for several weeks.
Radiotherapy can be given in 2 ways:
- Either from outside the body using x-rays (external radiotherapy).
- Or from within the body (internal radiotherapy).
The type of radiotherapy used depends on the type of cancer, where it is, its size, your general health, test results and other cancer treatment you have had.
- External radiotherapy is normally given as a series of short, daily treatments in the radiotherapy department, using equipment similar to a large x-ray machine.
- The treatment itself is painless, although it may gradually cause some uncomfortable side effects.
- Radiotherapy affects people in different ways; some find that they can carry on working or studying, only needing time off for their treatment, while others find it too tiring and prefer to stay at home.
What to expect:
- A session can take anything from a few seconds to several minutes. Your positioning is important, so the radiographers may take a little while to get you ready before treatment starts.
- They’ll position you carefully and adjust the height of the table. The room may be in semi-darkness while this is happening.
- Once you’re in the correct position the staff will need to leave you alone in the room, but there will usually be an intercom so that you can talk to the radiographers.
They will be watching you carefully from the next room, either through a window or on a television screen. If you have any problems, you can raise your hand to attract the radiographer’s attention and they will come in to help you.
Most radiotherapy machines will be able to rotate around your body to give the treatment from several different directions.
Women of childbearing age will be asked whether they could be pregnant, as x-rays given during pregnancy could harm a baby. If you think that you may be pregnant, let the doctors and radiographers know immediately and you’ll be offered a pregnancy test.
- Internal radiotherapy is used mainly to treat cancers in the head and neck area, the cervix, womb, prostate gland or the skin.
It is given in one of two ways:
- By putting solid radioactive material close to or inside the tumour for a limited period of time.
- By using a radioactive liquid, which is given either as a drink or as an injection into a vein.
If you have internal radiotherapy, you may have to stay in hospital for a few days and special precautions will be taken while the radioactive material is in your body.
Once the treatment is over there is no risk of exposing your family or friends to radiation, but while it is in progress they may not be able to come close to you.