Radiotherapy for oesophageal cancer

Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells.

Radiotherapy can be given in two ways:

  • External beam radiotherapy – This aims high-energy x-rays at the affected area using a large machine. This is the most common way of giving radiotherapy for oesophageal cancer.
  • Internal radiotherapy – A radioactive material is put into, or close to, the tumour. It is also known as brachytherapy (see below). It is not often used to treat oesophageal cancer.

External beam radiotherapy for oesophageal cancer

External beam radiotherapy is usually given in combination with chemotherapy to treat oesophageal cancer. This is known as chemoradiotherapy. It may sometimes be given instead of surgery with the aim of curing the cancer. It is also sometimes given before an operation to shrink the tumour.

If the cancer is more advanced, you may have radiotherapy on its own to shrink the tumour and help control symptoms.

You have the treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department. Each treatment takes 10 to 15 minutes. It is usually given every day from Monday to Friday, with a rest at the weekend. Your doctor will discuss your treatment and the possible side effects with you.

Internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy) for oesophageal cancer

To give brachytherapy, a radioactive source is placed into the cancer. This gives a high dose of radiotherapy to the tumour. As the radiation does not travel far, the organs around the tumour are much less affected. The source is left there for a set period of time. The length of time depends on the amount of radiation that is being used. It can range from 10 to 30 minutes. This means that treatment can be focused directly at the tumour, for a short time. It is used instead of external radiation, which is given to a wider area for a longer period of time. Brachytherapy is usually used when the cancer is advanced, to help control symptoms.

There are two ways of giving internal radiotherapy. It can be given through:

  • An endoscope – This is a tube placed through your mouth and down your throat until the tip is in your stomach.
  • A nasogastric (NG) tube – This is a thin, flexible, plastic tube that goes up your nose, down the back of your throat, and into your stomach.

Your doctor can explain more about how this treatment is given.

Internal radiotherapy can make it feel temporarily sore when you swallow. This may develop a few days after treatment and last for a few days. Your doctor can recommend liquid medicines to help.

You may need to stay in hospital for a few days for your treatment. Your doctor can tell you when you can have visitors.

Children or pregnant women should not visit you while you are having internal radiotherapy. The hospital staff can talk to you about this.

We have more information about radiotherapy and its side effects. You might also find it helpful to watch our video about radiotherapy.

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.