Types of external beam radiotherapy for head and neck cancer

You usually have external beam radiotherapy as an outpatient in the hospital radiotherapy department. It is normally given as a number of short treatments. These are called treatment sessions or fractions. You may have radiotherapy:

  • Monday to Friday, with a rest at the weekend (this is the most common method)
  • more than once a day (hyperfractionation).

Treatment may take 3 to 7 weeks. This is called a course of treatment. Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will discuss the treatment with you.

If you are having radiotherapy to help with symptoms, you may only need a short course or a single treatment session.

Intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) 

IMRT is the main type of external beam radiotherapy used to treat cancer of the larynx. It shapes the radiotherapy beams and allows different doses of radiotherapy to be given to different parts of the treatment area. This means lower doses of radiotherapy are given to the healthy tissue surrounding the tumour. 

This can help reduce the risk of side effects and late effects. It may also allow higher doses of radiotherapy to be given to the tumour. 

Research has shown that having IMRT may reduce some long-term side effects, including having a dry mouth. This is because radiotherapy given in this way avoids the salivary glands, where saliva (spit) is produced.

Some people may have regular scans during their treatment. This is to make sure the radiotherapy is targeting the treatment area. 

Sometimes the treatment may need adjusting, for example, if you lose weight during treatment.

Conformal radiotherapy (CRT) 

Many types of external beam radiotherapy are conformal. This means the beams are specially shaped to fit the treatment area. It may be used to give lower doses of radiotherapy. 

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