- External beam radiotherapy is the most commonly used type of radiotherapy. Radiation is directed into the affected area of your body from outside of your body, usually from a machine called a linear accelerator (or linac).
- Internal radiation directed from inside your body. A small source of radiation is placed near to or inside the affected area in your body. This may be temporary or permanent. Or your doctor may inject or ask you to drink a special radioactive liquid that is taken up by cancer cells.
You’ll usually start by seeing a clinical oncologist – a specialist cancer doctor who’ll oversee your treatment. Before you start your treatment, the course of radiotherapy needs to be carefully planned. You may need to have an X-ray, CT scan or MRI scan to help find out the size and position of your cancer to help with the planning.
If you're having external radiotherapy, your radiotherapy team will ask you to come to the radiotherapy department for a planning appointment. They will use a special scanner called a CT simulator to plan your treatment. They may also tattoo a few tiny dots on your skin to show where the radiotherapy should be directed. A member of your radiotherapy team will explain carefully what’s going to happen and what you need to do.
Having radiotherapy doesn’t hurt. Not all hospitals have a radiotherapy department so you may need to go to a specialist cancer hospital or a large regional hospital.
External beam radiotherapy is usually given in small amounts (called fractions) over a number of days and perhaps weeks. You’ll probably be able to attend as an outpatient, rather than stay in hospital. The radiotherapy is given in a special treatment room with a large machine called a linear accelerator (or linac). Your radiotherapy team will explain what you’ll see and hear during your treatment, which may take up to 15 minutes each time. Radiotherapy is usually given on weekdays so most patients have their weekends off.
If you’re having internal radiotherapy, you may need to stay in hospital for a few days. The type of internal radiotherapy you have will depend on what type of cancer you have. Your doctor will explain what will happen – it’s OK to ask questions if you need to know more.
Not all people have side-effects from radiotherapy. Your radiotherapy team will do all they can to minimise the chance of you getting side-effects, and to help you cope with them if they do occur. Side-effects can vary depending on what part of your body is treated, the type and dose of radiotherapy used, and your own health.
Soon after starting treatment you may get:
- skin problems – temporary dryness, itching, blistering or peeling
- tiredness and weakness – you may feel exhausted but resting may not help
- loss of hair in the area of treatment. – hair on other parts of your body isn’t affected
Some side-effects may be specific to the site of your treatment. You may get:
- dry mouth, difficulty swallowing and a sore mouth if you have radiotherapy to your head and neck
- shortness of breath or an inflammation of the lung called pneumonitis if you have radiotherapy to your chest
- nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea if you have radiotherapy to your abdomen
For many people, the side-effects wear off a few weeks after their treatment ends. But sometimes radiotherapy can leave you with long-term side-effects. These might occur weeks or even years after you finish treatment, and include the risk that the radiotherapy itself causes another cancer. Your doctor can give you more information about how long-term side-effects may affect you.
- Radiotherapy. PatientPlus. www.patient.info/patientplus, reviewed 11 January 2013
- Radiotherapy. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerresearchuk.org, published 25 April 2014
- Radiotherapy. British Institute of Radiology. www.bir.org.uk, accessed November 2015
- Radiotherapy. Macmillan. www.macmillan.org.uk, accessed November 2015
- What is radiation therapy? Cancer.net. www.cancer.net, published February 2013
- Side effects of radiation therapy. Cancer.net. www.cancer.net, published February 2013
We’d love to know what you think about what you’ve just been reading and looking at – we’ll use it to improve our information. If you’d like to give us some feedback, our short form below will take just a few minutes to complete. And if there's a question you want to ask that hasn't been answered here, please submit it to us. Although we can't respond to specific questions directly, we’ll aim to include the answer to it when we next review this topic.
Let us know what you think using our short feedback form Ask us a question
Reviewed by Dylan Merkett, Health Information Team, March 2016
Peer-reviewed by Dr Anthony Gershuny, Consultant Oncologist
About our health information
At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. We believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and care. Here are just a few of the ways in which our core editorial principles have been recognised.
Information StandardWe are certified by the Information Standard. This quality mark identifies reliable, trustworthy producers and sources of health information.
What our readers say about us
But don't just take our word for it; here's some feedback from our readers.
“Simple and easy to use website - not alarming, just helpful.”
“It’s informative but not too detailed. I like that it’s factual and realistic about the conditions and the procedures involved. It’s also easy to navigate to areas that you specifically want without having to read all the information.”
“Good information, easy to find, trustworthy.”
Meet the team
Head of health content and clinical engagement
- Dylan Merkett – Lead Editor – UK Customer
- Nicholas Ridgman – Lead Editor – UK Health and Care Services
- Natalie Heaton – Specialist Editor – User Experience
- Pippa Coulter – Specialist Editor – Content Library
- Alice Rossiter – Specialist Editor – Insights
- Laura Blanks – Specialist Editor – Quality
- Michelle Harrison – Editorial Assistant
Our core principles
All our health content is produced in line with our core editorial principles – readable, reliable, relevant – which are represented by our diagram.
In a nutshell, our information is jargon-free, concise and accessible. We know our audience and we meet their health information needs, helping them to take the next step in their health and wellbeing journey.
We use the best quality and most up-to-date evidence to produce our information. Our process is transparent and validated by experts – both our users and medical specialists.
We know that our users want the right information at the right time, in the way that suits them. So we review our content at least every three years to keep it fresh. And we’re embracing new technology and social media so they can get it whenever and wherever they choose.
Here are just a few of the ways in which the quality of our information has been recognised.
The Information Standard certification scheme
You will see the Information Standard quality mark on our content. This is a certification programme, supported by NHS England, that was developed to ensure that public-facing health and care information is created to a set of best practice principles.
It uses only recognised evidence sources and presents the information in a clear and balanced way. The Information Standard quality mark is a quick and easy way for you to identify reliable and trustworthy producers and sources of information.
Certified by the Information Standard as a quality provider of health and social care information. Bupa shall hold responsibility for the accuracy of the information they publish and neither the Scheme Operator nor the Scheme Owner shall have any responsibility whatsoever for costs, losses or direct or indirect damages or costs arising from inaccuracy of information or omissions in information published on the website on behalf of Bupa.
British Medical Association (BMA) patient information awards
We have received a number of BMA awards for different assets over the years. Most recently, in 2013, we received a 'commended' award for our online shared decision making hub.
If you have any feedback on our health information, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can write to us:
Health Content Team
15-19 Bloomsbury Way