Radiotherapy for oesophageal cancer

Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells.

Radiotherapy can be given in two ways:

  • From outside the body as external beam radiotherapy. This is the most common way of giving radiotherapy for oesophageal cancer.
  • By putting a radioactive material into, or close by, the tumour. This is known as internal radiotherapy or brachytherapy. It isn’t used very often to treat oesophageal cancer.

Treating oesophageal cancer with external radiotherapy

External radiotherapy is usually given in combination with chemotherapy to treat oesophageal cancer. This is known as chemoradiotherapy and may sometimes be given instead of surgery. It is also sometimes given before an operation to shrink the tumour.

If the cancer is more advanced, radiotherapy may be given on its own to shrink the tumour and help control symptoms.

The treatment is given in the hospital radiotherapy department. Each treatment takes 10–15 minutes and is usually given every day from Monday–Friday, with a rest at the weekend. Your doctor will discuss your treatment and the possible side effects with you.

Treating oesophageal cancer with internal radiotherapy

To give brachytherapy, a radioactive source is placed into the cancer. This gives a high dose of radiotherapy to the tumour. As the radiation doesn’t travel far, your surrounding organs won’t be affected. The source is left there for some time, ranging from between 30 minutes to a couple of days. This depends on the amount of radiation that’s needed. This means that more focused treatment can be given directly to the tumour over a short time. This is instead of a course of external radiation given to a wider area over a longer time.

There are two ways of giving internal radiotherapy:

  • through an endoscope
  • through a nasogastric (NG) tube – this is a thin, flexible, plastic tube that goes up your nose, down the back of your throat and into your stomach.

Your doctor can explain more about how treatment is given. 

Internal radiotherapy causes temporary soreness when you swallow. This may develop a few days after treatment and last for a few days. Your doctor will recommend liquid medicines to help.

If you have to stay in hospital for a few days while the radioactive source is in place, your family or friends will only be able to visit you for short periods each day.

Children or pregnant women shouldn’t visit you while you’re having this type of radiotherapy. The hospital staff will talk to you about this.

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Possible side effects

Radiotherapy to the oesophagus can cause side effects. These should gradually disappear when treatment finishes.

Who might I meet?

You will meet many different specialists before, during and after radiotherapy treatment.