Radiotherapy treats cancer by using high-energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells.
Radiotherapy is an important part of treatment for soft tissue sarcomas, particularly those affecting the arms or legs. It is usually given after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells and to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back. The wound must be healed before radiotherapy starts.
Sometimes, radiotherapy is given before an operation (neo-adjuvant radiotherapy), either to shrink the tumour and make it easier for the surgeon to remove it successfully, or to avoid having to amputate the limb.
Radiotherapy is sometimes given on its own and may be the only treatment needed. Radiotherapy is also given to relieve symptoms and control sarcomas that can’t be removed.
Radiotherapy for sarcomas is normally given as a series of short daily treatments in the hospital radiotherapy department. High-energy x-rays are directed from a machine at the area of the cancer.
The treatments are usually given from Monday–Friday, with a rest at the weekend. The number of treatments will depend on the type, size and position of the sarcoma. A course of treatment for early cancer will usually last about six weeks. Each treatment takes about 10–15 minutes. Your doctor will discuss the treatment and possible side effects with you.
Radiotherapy for sarcomas is often given using a technique called conformal radiotherapy. The radiation beams are shaped to the part of the body that needs to be treated. For some people, a more complex technique called intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) may be used. IMRT delivers a high dose of radiation to the tumour and varies the dose given to nearby healthy tissue. This can help to reduce side effects.