Saturday 1 February, 2014

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On this page:  What is radiotherapy? | How does radiotherapy work? | Why have radiotherapy? | How is radiotherapy given? | Where will I have treatment? | How do I know the treatment has worked? | Which health professionals might I see? | Key points

What is radiotherapy?

Radiotherapy uses radiation, such as x-rays, gamma rays, electron beams or protons, to kill or damage cancer cells and stop them from growing and multiplying. It is a localised treatment, which means it generally only affects the part of the body where the radiation is directed.

How does radiotherapy work?

Radiotherapy damages cancer cells in the region being treated. Although the radiation can also damage normal cells, they can usually repair themselves. During this repair process, you may experience some side effects, depending on the part of your body being treated.

Why have radiotherapy?

Many people diagnosed with cancer will have radiotherapy as part of their treatment. Research shows that at least one in two people recently diagnosed with cancer would benefit from radiotherapy. It can be used for several reasons:

Radiotherapy given with the aim of curing the cancer on its own or combined with other treatments, such as surgery or chemotherapy. This may be called curative treatment.


Radiotherapy used to control the cancer by making it smaller or stopping it from spreading.

Help other treatments

Radiotherapy is used before (neoadjuvant) or after (adjuvant) other treatments. The aim is to make the main treatment more effective.

Symptom relief (palliative treatment)

Radiotherapy is often able to relieve symptoms, such as pain or bleeding, to help you to feel as well as possible.

How is radiotherapy given?

It can be given in two ways:

External radiotherapy

You will lie on a treatment table underneath a machine, which aims radiation beams towards your body. The machine remains outside of your body and doesn’t come into contact with you. Radiation beams are directed towards the cancer and surrounding tissues where the cancer may have spread.

Internal radiotherapy

A radiation source is put inside the body on or near the cancer. This includes brachytherapy, where a temporary or permanent radiation source is put inside the body on or near the cancer, or radioisotope treatment, where a radioactive isotope is given as a capsule.

Depending on the type and size of the cancer, and where it is in your body, you may have one or both types of radiotherapy. The different types of radiotherapy are described in more detail in the following pages.

Where will I have treatment?

Radiotherapy is delivered by specially trained staff called radiation therapists.

It uses large medical equipment that takes up a lot of space, so treatment is usually given in large hospitals or private clinics, in dedicated rooms.

Radiotherapy departments are run in different ways, so procedures may vary slightly. While the information in this booklet will apply in most cases, you may find things are done a little differently at the place where you’re being treated.

Travelling to treatment

While treatment schedules can vary for individuals, most people have radiotherapy on an outpatient basis. This means they do not stay in hospital, but travel to the radiotherapy department for each session.

If you are driving to the treatment centre, you may find you feel tired after a few weeks of treatment. At this stage, you may want to arrange for a family member or friend to drive you to treatment.

If you have to travel a long way each day to treatment, you may be able to get some financial assistance towards the cost of accommodation or travel. To check your eligibility or to apply, speak to the hospital social worker or radiotherapy department receptionist, or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.

How do I know the treatment has worked?

In the weeks and months following your course of treatment, you will talk with your doctor, be examined and have some tests or scans. This will show if the cancer has responded or gone away.

Cancer cells begin to die during a course of radiotherapy and this may continue for weeks or months after treatment ends. For this reason, the health professionals treating you can’t give you progress updates on how radiotherapy is going throughout the course of your treatment. However, they can adjust the dose and help you manage any side effects.

It may be some time after radiotherapy finishes before the full benefit is confirmed. Follow-up tests will be done periodically to see if the cancer has regrown or recurred.

If radiotherapy is given as palliative treatment, the relief of symptoms will tell you if the treatment has worked. This may take a few days or a few weeks.

Which health professionals might I see?

Some health professionals who care for people having radiotherapy are listed in the table below. You will also see other health professionals who specialise in diagnosing and treating the type of cancer you have.

Health professional Role
radiation oncologist a specialist doctor who prescribes and coordinates the course of radiation treatment and advises about side effects
radiation therapist
plans and delivers radiation treatment
radiation oncology nurses
help you manage emotional and physical problems, such as side effects that you may experience during treatment
radiation physicist
ensures that the machines are running correctly in order to deliver treatment accurately and safely
recommends an eating plan to follow while you are in treatment and recovery
social worker, physiotherapist, clinical psychologist and occupational therapist
advise you on support services and help you get back to your usual activities
pastoral carer
helps with any religious or spiritual concerns

Key points

  • Radiotherapy uses radiation to kill or damage cancer cells and stop them from growing and multiplying.
  • Treatment also affects normal cells, but they are better able to repair themselves.
  • Radiotherapy is used to treat cancer, slow its growth or relieve symptoms.
  • You may have treatment in hospital or at a clinic. Most people have outpatient treatment – this means they come to each treatment session without staying in hospital.
  • Radiotherapy can be given by a variety of machines and devices, depending on which part of the body is affected, and the type and stage of the tumour. The two main types are external and internal (brachytherapy or radioisotope) radiotherapy.
  • Most patients will only have one type of radiotherapy.
  • The effects of treatment add up over time. The doctor will know if treatment has worked after the treatment sessions are done, and the full benefit of treatment may be seen in the weeks following treatment.
  • You will be treated by a team of health professionals, including a radiation oncologist, a radiation therapist and radiation oncology nurses. They will work together to ensure you receive the best possible care.

Radiotherapy in Cancer Care: Estimating the optimal utilisation from a review of evidence-based clinical guidelines. Collaboration for Cancer Outcomes Research and Evaluation CCORE), funded by Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing. October 2003.

Reviewed by: Dr Kevin Palumbo, Radiation Oncologist, Adelaide Radiotherapy Centre, SA; A/Prof Michael Jackson, Director, Radiation Oncology, Prince of Wales Hospital, NSW; Amanda Janus, Radiation Therapist, St Andrew’s Toowoomba Hospital, QLD; Page Massey, Consumer; Emma Marafioti, Site Manager, Adelaide Radiotherapy Centre: Calvary Central Districts, SA; Julie Trevanian, Associate Nurse Unit Manager, William Buckland Radiotherapy Gippsland, Latrobe Hospital, VIC; Kathryn Watty, Nurse Unit Manager, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; and Cancer Council QLD Helpline Operators.

Updated: 01 Feb, 2014