- 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
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Reviewed by Dylan Merkett, Health Information Team, March 2016
Peer-reviewed by Dr Anthony Gershuny, Consultant Oncologist
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