Radiotherapy treats cancer by using high-energy x-rays that destroy the cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells.
Radiotherapy can be used for different reasons:
To cure a cancer. To do this, radiotherapy’s usually given over a few weeks. It’s often used in addition to other treatments, such as surgery and chemotherapy. Occasionally, radiotherapy and chemotherapy are given at the same time, which is called chemoradiation.
To relieve symptoms such as pain. It does this by helping to shrink the cancer. This type of radiotherapy usually only needs one or two treatments, or a very short course of treatment.
Radiotherapy uses radiation to destroy cancer cells in the area the treatment’s being delivered to. Normal cells can also be damaged by the radiation, but they can usually repair themselves.
You’ll have radiotherapy at a main cancer treatment centre because it’s a specialised treatment. This might mean you need to travel a bit to have radiotherapy. You might have tests or other treatment at one hospital and be referred to another hospital to have radiotherapy.
Radiotherapy machines need staff (called radiographers) who are specially trained to operate the machines and give you the treatment. Radiotherapy machines are quite big and take up space, so they have their own area in the cancer treatment centre.
Radiotherapy can be given in two different ways:
External radiotherapy is given from outside the body using a machine that looks like a big x-ray machine. This is the most common type of radiotherapy.
Internal radiotherapy is given from inside the body. For example, it can be given as a drink called radioactive iodine, which is used to treat some thyroid cancers. You can read about this in our thyroid cancer treatment section. There are other types of internal radiotherapy, but they aren’t usually given to teenagers and young adults.
The rest of the information in this section is about radiotherapy that’s given from outside the body (external radiotherapy).
We have more information about internal radiotherapy. This info is written for anyone who's looking for information about radiotherapy, not just for young adults.
I don't think there's anything really that people can say, you've just got to stick with it, put up with it for a couple of times and you just get used to it. It doesn't hurt it, it is fine... it isn't as bad as like what you think, you've just got to put up with it anyway.
Radiotherapy is usually given as short session every day from Monday-Friday, with a rest at the weekend. Each treatment is called a fraction and only takes about 10-15 minutes.
Depending on the type of cancer, some people are given more than one treatment a day, including the weekends. This is called hyperfractionated radiotherapy.
You can usually have radiotherapy as an outpatient, but you can also have it when you’re in hospital for other treatment or having tests. How long your course of radiotherapy lasts depends on the type of cancer you have and your situation. Your cancer doctor, radiographer or specialist nurse will tell you more about this.
Radiotherapy is carefully planned to make sure it’s given to the exact area and causes as little damage as possible to healthy tissue. Your cancer doctor will plan your treatment, and this may take a few visits to the radiotherapy department. On your first visit you’ll have a CT scan or lie under a machine called a simulator, which takes x-rays of the area that’s going to be treated. You do have to lie very still during planning and it can take a little while, which is sometimes a bit uncomfortable. But it’s very important that treatment planning is as exact as possible.
You’ll usually have ink markings drawn on your skin to show where the x-rays will be directed. The radiographer will explain how to look after the markings so they don’t rub off. Sometimes permanent marks (like tiny tattoos) are made on the skin, but only with your permission.
Sometimes a mould (shell) is made of the part of the body being treated, such as an arm or leg. This is to help keep you still during treatment. If you’re having radiotherapy to your head or neck, you’ll usually have a mould that’s made of clear plastic. This needs to be made before planning starts. Your radiographer or nurse will explain all this to you so that you know what to expect.
At the beginning of each session of radiotherapy, the radiographer will position you carefully on the couch and make sure you’re comfortable. During treatment you’ll be alone in the room, but you can talk to the radiographer, who watches you from the next room. It isn’t painful, but you have to lie still for a few minutes during the treatment.
Specialised types of external radiotherapy
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Sometimes, depending on the type of cancer, specialised types of external radiotherapy are needed:
Stereotactic radiotherapy is sometimes used to treat brain tumours. It treats the cancer with lots of beams of radiation, which each give a low dose to the tumour. This means the tumour ends up getting a higher dose of radiation and the surrounding healthy tissue gets a lower dose. You’ll have a special head frame made to help you to keep your head still while you have this type of radiotherapy.
Stereotactic radiosurgery is a similar treatment but it’s given over one session, which takes about 45 hours. Despite the name it doesn’t involve surgery. It’s also sometimes called gamma knife treatment, which is named after one of the machines used to give the treatment.
Total body irradiation is radiotherapy to the whole body, which is occasionally used if you have leukaemia and need a stem cell or bone marrow transplant Total body irridation is given as either one large, dose or 6-8 smaller doses of radiation, to destroy leukaemia cells in the bone marrow (where blood cells are made). These are then replaced by new blood cells that are given to you from someone else (a donor).