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Radiotherapy| treats cancer by using high-energy x-rays to destroy the cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells.
Radiotherapy is occasionally used to treat recurrent melanomas that can’t be removed with surgery| or aren’t suitable for other treatments. Your specialist will let you know if radiotherapy is suitable for you.
Find out about how external beam radiotherapy is given.
The treatment is normally given in the hospital radiotherapy department as a series of short sessions on weekdays, with a rest at the weekend. Each treatment takes about 10-15 minutes. Your doctor will discuss the length of the treatment and possible side effects with you. External radiotherapy doesn’t make you radioactive and it’s perfectly safe for you to be with other people, including children, after your treatment.
Radiotherapy has to be carefully planned to make sure that it’s as effective as possible, which may take a few visits. On your first visit to the radiotherapy department, you’ll be asked to have a CT scan or lie under a machine called a simulator, which takes x-rays of the area to be treated.
The treatment is planned by a cancer specialist (clinical oncologist). Marks are likely to be drawn on your skin to help the radiographer (who gives you your treatment) position you accurately and show where the rays will be directed. These marks must stay visible throughout your treatment. Permanent marks, like tiny tattoos, may be used. These will only be done with your permission, and may be a little uncomfortable while being done.
At the beginning of each session of radiotherapy, the radiographer will position you carefully on the couch, and make sure you’re comfortable.
Positioning the radiotherapy machine
View a large version of the diagram showing the positioning of the radiotherapy machine|
During your treatment you’ll be left alone in the room. You’ll be able to talk to the radiographer, who will be watching you from the next room. Radiotherapy is not painful but you do have to lie still for a few minutes while the treatment is being given.
Radiotherapy will make you feel tired and this can sometimes last for some weeks or even months after your treatment finishes. Other side effects will depend on the area being treated. Radiotherapy can cause a skin reaction (like sunburn) in the area being treated. You’ll be advised by the radiographers on how to look after your skin.
If you’re having radiotherapy to your groin, you may get some diarrhoea| or feel that you want to pass urine more frequently. Radiotherapy to the neck can make your mouth| or throat sore. Your doctor can prescribe drugs to help relieve these side effects. Most of the side effects of radiotherapy are temporary and will gradually go away when your treatment is over.
Content last reviewed: 1 November 2011
Next planned review: 2013
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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