How should I prepare for radiotherapy?

Before you start radiotherapy, your clinical oncologist or specialist radiographer will usually arrange an appointment to discuss your treatment and any possible risks or side effects with you.

You will be asked to sign a form giving your permission (consent) for the hospital staff to give you the treatment. Before signing, make sure you’ve seen and understand all the treatment information. Radiotherapy treatments can be difficult to understand, so it’s normal to have questions for the hospital staff.

Radiotherapy can harm a developing baby so you should avoid getting pregnant or fathering a child during treatment. If you think you may be pregnant, speak to your doctor or radiographer immediately. You should also let them know if you have a pacemaker, implantable cardiac device (ICD) or cochlea implant, as these can be affected by radiotherapy.

Radiotherapy may affect how much you can do at home and work. It may be an idea to arrange extra help and talk to your employer in advance, to help make it easier to cope.

Giving your consent

You’ll normally have an appointment at the clinic to see your clinical oncologist or specialist radiographer. They will discuss your radiotherapy treatment with you and explain its aims.

They will also ask you to sign a form saying that you give permission (consent) for the hospital staff to give you radiotherapy. No treatment can be given without your consent, and before you’re asked to sign the form you should be given full information about:

  • the treatment – whether it’s external or internal radiotherapy
  • the aim of the treatment – whether it’s curative or palliative
  • the number of treatment sessions you’re likely to need
  • the advantages and disadvantages of the treatment
  • immediate side effects, which may happen during and for a short time after treatment, and late side effects, which may occur months or years later
  • any risks of the treatment
  • any other treatments that you could have instead of radiotherapy.

It’s a good idea to have a relative or friend with you when the treatment is explained, to help you remember the discussion. You may also find it useful to write a list of questions before your appointment. We have a list of questions that you may want to ask your radiotherapy team.

People sometimes feel that hospital staff are too busy to answer their questions, but it’s important for you to know how the treatment is likely to affect you. The staff should be willing to make time for your questions. If you don’t understand what you’ve been told, let the staff know straight away so they can explain again. Some radiotherapy treatments are complex, so it’s not unusual to need repeated explanations.

You can always ask for more time if you feel that you can’t make a decision when your treatment is first explained to you.

You are also free to choose not to have the treatment. The staff can explain what may happen if you don’t have it. It’s essential to tell a doctor, a radiographer or the nurse in charge, so they can record your decision in your medical notes. You don’t have to give a reason for not wanting treatment, but it can help to let the staff know your concerns so they can give you the best advice.

If you decide to stop your treatment after it has started, you will need to discuss this with your doctors. They will explain what may happen to you and will talk to you about other possible treatment options.


Practical things to consider before you start radiotherapy

Pregnancy

If you’re a woman of childbearing age, it’s important that you don’t become pregnant during your treatment. This is because radiotherapy given during pregnancy could harm a developing baby. Your doctors will be able to give you more information about this.

Before you give your consent for radiotherapy, you will need to confirm:

  • that you aren’t pregnant
  • that you understand you should avoid becoming pregnant during treatment (this means you’ll need to use a reliable form of birth control).

If you think that you may be pregnant at any time during your treatment, tell the doctors and radiographers immediately and you’ll be offered a pregnancy test.

If you’re a man having radiotherapy treatment, your doctors may advise you not to father a child during treatment and for a few months after it’s finished. You can ask your doctors for information about this.

Heart pacemakers, implantable cardiac devices (ICDs) and cochlea implants

If you have a pacemaker, ICD or cochlea implant (a special implant in your ear), you must tell your oncologist or radiographer either before or during your first planning appointment. These devices can be affected by radiotherapy, so your treatment has to be planned to allow for them.


Other things to think about

Here are some other things to think about before you start your radiotherapy.

Help at home

Tiredness is a common side effect of radiotherapy so you may need help with day-to-day chores. Although it can be hard to ask for help, family and friends are usually keen to do whatever they can. If you live alone or are caring for someone else, you can ask to see a hospital social worker about getting help.

Getting to your appointments and travel costs

You may want to drive yourself to hospital for your treatment, but remember you may feel more tired as your treatment progresses. If you feel tired, it’s best to ask a relative or friend if they can drive you. If you’re worried about getting to the hospital, let the staff in the radiotherapy department know. They may be able to arrange transport for you. Some local support groups and charities also provide transport. If you have difficulty meeting the cost of travelling to the hospital every day, you may be able to get help with travel expenses. Some hospitals will offer reduced parking charges or reimburse the cost of parking if you’re having daily radiotherapy treatment.

Smoking

Research has shown that stopping smoking during and after radiotherapy may make it more effective. It can also reduce the side effects of treatment. So if you do smoke, you should try cutting down or stopping. Many hospitals provide help or advice on how to quit smoking. Your clinical oncologist, specialist radiographer, or specialist nurse will let you know if your hospital provides this service. If they don’t, your GP, a pharmacist or an organisation such as Smokefree will be able to help. We have more information about giving up smoking.

Work and further education

If you’re working or in further education, it’s a good idea to talk to your employer or tutors, so they can make arrangements to support you and organise your time off during treatment.


Your feelings

You may find that coping with cancer and radiotherapy can sometimes make you feel anxious, afraid or depressed. Sometimes these feelings can be triggered by things like having to change your daily routine to fit in with your radiotherapy treatment. Or, it may be something more obvious like a particular side effect or the risk of infertility. It’s natural to have these feelings during your treatment.

Everyone needs some support during difficult times and having cancer is one of the most stressful situations you’re likely to face. It’s often helpful to talk over your feelings with your family or close friends. You can also talk to your doctor, specialist nurse, radiographer or a social worker about how you’re feeling. It’s important to let them know if you’re struggling or think you may be depressed. They can arrange more support or refer you to a counsellor or doctor who specialises in the emotional problems of people with cancer. They may also be able to prescribe an antidepressant or anti-anxiety drug for you.

We have more information about the emotions you may experience and ways of coping with them. 


Back to Radiotherapy explained

What is radiotherapy?

Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells. This treatment aims to treat cancer or relieve symptoms.

Possible side effects

There are things you can do to help manage the possible side effects of radiotherapy treatment.

Planning your treatment

Radiographers will work with you to plan your radiotherapy treatment.

Where will you have radiotherapy?

Radiotherapy treatment is given in a hospital’s radiotherapy department

Possible side effects of pelvic radiotherapy

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

Who might I meet?

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

After treatment

It can take time for your body to recover after finishing treatment. Advice and support is always available.