Radiotherapy for anal cancer

Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells. The most common treatment for anal cancer is having radiotherapy in combination with chemotherapy (chemoradiation). You can also have radiotherapy on its own if your doctors think you aren’t well enough to have chemoradiation.

Radiotherapy may also be used to relieve symptoms if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

We have more information about how radiotherapy treatment is planned and how to cope with side effects.

How radiotherapy is given

You usually have it as an outpatient in the radiotherapy department. The radiotherapy is given using equipment similar to a large x-ray machine. This is called a linear accelerator (often called a linac).

The radiotherapy is usually given as a series of short, daily treatments. You have the treatments from Monday to Friday, with a rest at the weekend. The course of treatment lasts 4 to 6 weeks. The radiotherapy doesn’t make you radioactive. It is perfectly safe for you to be with other people, including children, throughout your treatment.

Intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT)

A type of radiotherapy called IMRT is usually used for anal cancer.

IMRT shapes the radiotherapy beams. This allows different doses of radiotherapy to be given to different areas. It means that lower doses can be given to healthy tissue – especially tissue that’s more easily damaged by radiotherapy. This lowers the chance of immediate and long-term side effects. For example, it can reduce the risk of long-term bowel problems.

Your doctor can tell you more about IMRT and whether it’s a suitable treatment for you.

Conformal radiotherapy

Conformal radiotherapy is another way of giving radiotherapy.

A special attachment to the radiotherapy machine carefully arranges the radiation beams to match the shape of the cancer. Shaping the radiotherapy beams reduces damage to the surrounding healthy cells. This can reduce the side effects of the radiotherapy.

Radiotherapy research

There is a trial called PLATO (personalising radiotherapy dose in anal cancer). It aims to find the best way of giving radiotherapy for different stages of anal cancer. We have more information about clinical trials and what they involve.

Back to Radiotherapy explained

Before your radiotherapy

Before you start radiotherapy, your team will explain what your treatment involves and how it may affect you.

Your radiotherapy team

You will meet many different specialists from your radiotherapy team. You may see them before, during and after radiotherapy treatment.

After your radiotherapy

It can take time to recover from radiotherapy. Support is there if you have any problems.