"After the first few sessions, it was fine" - What is radiotherapy?

Many people have radiotherapy as part of their cancer treatment. It uses high-energy rays, such as x-rays, to destroy cancer cells. In this blog content developer Azmina explains when radiotherapy is used, what to expect and issues to consider during treatment.

When is radiotherapy used?
Radiotherapy can be used to:

  • try to destroy a tumour and cure the cancer
  • lower the risk of the cancer coming back after surgery
  • shrink a tumour before surgery and make it easier to remove
  • shrink the cancer and help control symptoms such as pain or coughing when a cure is not possible.

How is radiotherapy planned?
Your radiotherapy team plan your treatment carefully. They must make sure that the radiotherapy is aimed precisely at the cancer, while causing the least possible damage to healthy surrounding cells.

You usually attend the hospital for a planning visit and have a CT scan. This scan takes pictures inside your body and sends the information to a planning computer. Your radiotherapy team can then work out the exact dose and area of your treatment.

After the scan, you may have tiny ink marks (the size of a pinpoint) made on your skin. These help the radiographers position you accurately for your treatment. Usually these marks are permanent, like a tattoo. If you are concerned about this, let your radiotherapy team know. They can discuss other options with you. Some people have a plastic mould or mask made to help them stay still during radiotherapy, and the ink marks may be put on this.

If you are having radiotherapy to your pelvis, your healthcare team will tell you about any preparation you need.  

This quote from Frances reads: I got used to the radiotherapy very quickly. After the first few sessions, it was fine. I knew what to expect and it was not as scary as I thought it would be.

What happens during treatment?

There are two main ways of giving radiotherapy:

  • External beam radiotherapy: This is normally given as several short treatments over 1 to 8 weeks. Most people have a daily session of radiotherapy at hospital, with a rest at weekends. They can usually go home after every session.

    During each radiotherapy appointment, you are asked to lie still on a treatment couch. Specialist staff called radiographers help get you into the correct position and look at the ink marks on your skin, mould or mask. They then leave the room and use a machine to direct beams of radiation at the cancer.

    The treatment only takes a few minutes. You can speak to the radiographers through an intercom. You do not feel any pain and may be able to listen to music to help you relax.

  • Internal radiotherapy: This is where a material is put inside your body, which releases radiation to treat the cancer. Radioactive implants, such as metal wires or tubes, may be placed near or inside the tumour. They are left in place for a few minutes or days, or sometimes permanently. Internal radiotherapy can also be given as a liquid that you drink, a tablet that you swallow, or as an injection. You may need to stay in hospital for a few days after internal radiotherapy.

What issues should be considered during treatment?
There are some important issues to think about if you have been offered radiotherapy:

Pregnancy
Whatever your gender, you should use reliable contraception to prevent a pregnancy during your treatment and possibly for a few months afterwards. Radiotherapy given during pregnancy could harm a developing baby.

Side effects
Radiotherapy can cause some side effects during or after treatment, such as:

It is unlikely that you will get all these side effects, and most are temporary. Your radiotherapy team can give you advice and support to help you cope.

Second cancers
Radiotherapy may slightly increase your chance of getting a different type of cancer later in life. This risk is far less than the benefits of treating the first cancer with radiotherapy. If you are worried about your risk of developing a second cancer, talk to your cancer doctor.

For more information, you can order a free copy of our Understanding radiotherapy booklet at be.macmillan.org.uk You can also call our Support Line on 0808 808 00 00 (7 days a week, 8am to 8pm).

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