Planning your treatment

To make sure that your radiotherapy is as effective as possible, it has to be carefully planned. Planning ensures the radiotherapy rays are aimed precisely at the cancer and cause the least possible damage to the surrounding healthy tissues. The treatment is planned by a specialist doctor known as a clinical oncologist.

Radiotherapy planning can usually be carried out during one visit to the radiotherapy department that takes about two hours. Sometimes you may need to make more than one visit.

To start with you’ll meet the radiographers (experts in giving radiotherapy), who will answer any questions you have.

It’s important that you’re able to lie still, in exactly the same position, for each treatment. To help you do this, you’ll wear a see-through plastic mask (sometimes called an immobilisation shell) for each session of radiotherapy.

The mask holds your head and neck as still as possible. It’s designed so that you can see and breathe normally while wearing it. You’ll have it on for up to about 15 minutes at a time. Most people soon get used to it. Talk to the radiographer, mould room technician or your specialist nurse if you find it difficult to wear the mask.

The radiographer or the mask room technician will explain the whole process to you before starting.

Once you have your mask you will have a CT scan of the area to be treated. The radiographers will take measurements to tailor the treatment to you. Some people also have an MRI scan as part of their radiotherapy planning.

The radiographer’s measurements and the information from the scans are fed into the radiotherapy planning computer so that your doctors can plan your treatment precisely.

Sometimes, marks may be drawn on your skin. These help the radiographer to position you accurately before each treatment. The marks must stay visible throughout your treatment, but they can be washed off once your course of treatment is over.

Tracheostomy tube

Very occasionally, radiotherapy to the mouth or throat can cause swelling in tissues around the airways, which can make breathing difficult. If this is likely to happen, your doctors will arrange for you to have a small opening made in your windpipe before you have radiotherapy. The opening is called a tracheostomy or stoma and will let you breathe comfortably. A tracheostomy is usually temporary.

Having radiotherapy

Before each treatment session the radiographer will position you on the treatment couch and carefully fit your mask. The treatment only takes a few minutes. During this time, you will be left alone in the room, but the radiographer will watch you from the next room. If you need assistance you can raise your arm and the radiographers will return to the room.

External radiotherapy doesn't make you radioactive, and it's perfectly safe for you to be with other people, including children, throughout your treatment.

They measured and fitted the radiotherapy mask and did more scans to work out where exactly they wanted to shoot the radiotherapy.


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Possible side effects

You can get side effects during radiotherapy treatment to your head and neck – these usually improve a few weeks after treatment is over.

Who might I meet?

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