Radiotherapy is the use of high-energy rays (usually x-rays) to treat cancer.
We have more information about the side effects of radiotherapy.
If you are looking for information about radiotherapy for people of all ages please see our general radiotherapy section.
Radiotherapy can be used for different reasons:
- To cure a cancer. To do this, radiotherapy is usually given over a few weeks. It’s often used in addition to other treatments, such as surgery and chemotherapy. Occasionally, you may have radiotherapy and chemotherapy at the same time. This 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 works by destroying cancer cells in the area that’s treated. Normal cells can also be damaged by radiotherapy. They can usually repair themselves, but cancer cells can’t.
You’ll have radiotherapy at a main cancer treatment centre because it’s a specialised treatment. You may 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.
Staff called radiographers 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 usually using high-energy x-rays. This is the most common type of radiotherapy.
- Internal radiotherapy is given from a radioavtive material placed 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.
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.
You usually have radiotherapy as a short session every day from Monday-Friday, with a rest at the weekend. Each treatment is called a fraction and takes about 10 to 15 minutes. More complicated treatments can take up to one hour each day.
You usually have radiotherapy as an outpatient. 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.
You have to lie very still on a special bed in the radiotherapy department to have your treatment. You will not see or feel the radiotherapy. It does not hurt.
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 and boring. It is very important that treatment planning is as exact as possible.
If you are having radiotherapy to your body or limbs you will usually have ink markings drawn on your skin to show where the radiotherapy will be directed. The radiographer can then line up the radiotherapy machine to the right spot every time you have treatment.The radiographer will explain how to look after the markings so they don’t rub off. Sometimes permanent marks (like tiny dot tattoos) are made on the skin, but only with your permission.
If you are having radiotherapy to your head or neck (or occasionally other parts), you will have a mask (also called a mould or shell) made. This mask goes over you and clips onto the bed. It helps to keep the part of you being treated 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. The mask takes about 10 minutes to make. It is plastic with holes in it so that you can breathe and see out. You will wear your mask for all planning and treatment sessions. Your radiographer or nurse will explain all this to you so that you know what to expect.
It is very important that you are not pregnant during radiotherapy. Always use protection if you have sex before or during radiotherapy. If you think there is any chance you might be pregnant, tell your radiographer.
At the beginning of each session of radiotherapy, the radiographer will position you carefully on the bed and make sure you’re comfortable. During treatment you’ll be alone in the room, but you can talk to the radiographer via the intercom. They will be watching from the next room. It isn’t painful, but you have to lie still for a few minutes during the treatment. You can usually bring music to play if you want.
Specialised types of external radiotherapyBack to top
Sometimes, depending on the type of cancer, specialised types of external radiotherapy are needed:
- Stereotactic radiotherapy is sometimes used to treat brain and other tumours. It uses many small beams of radiation to target the tumour. It is able to deliver high doses of radiotherapy to very small areas of the body, which reduces side effects. You’ll have a special head frame made to help you to keep your head still while you have this type of radiotherapy. There are different machines that can give this type of treatment including Gamma Knife™ and Cyberknife.
- Total body irradiation is radiotherapy to the whole body. It is occasionally used if you need a stem cell or bone marrow transplant. Total body irradiation is given as either one large dose or 6 to 8 smaller doses of radiation, to destroy leukaemia or lymphoma cells in the bone marrow (where blood cells are made).
- Proton therapy can be used to treat some cancers, for example in the head or next to the spine. The treatment is the same but proton radiotherapy can reduce treatment of the normal tissue around the cancer which might reduce side effects. At present you have to travel abroad for this treatment. Your team will be able to give you more details about this treatment if they think it might be right for you.