Radiotherapy

Friday 1 January, 2016

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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? | Can I have radiotherapy if I am pregnant? | Will I be able to work during radiotherapy? | How will I know if the treatment has worked? | Which health professionals will I see?


What is radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses radiation, such as x-rays, gamma rays, electron beams or protons, to kill cancer cells or damage them so they cannot grow or multiply. It is a localised treatment, which means it generally only affects the part of the body where the radiation is targeted.

How does radiotherapy work?

Radiotherapy kills or damages cancer cells in the area being treated. Cancer cells begin to die within days or weeks of treatment starting and continue to die for weeks or months after it finishes. Although the radiation can also damage healthy cells, these can usually repair themselves.

You should not feel any pain during radiotherapy, but some side effects can cause pain or discomfort. Refer to the managing side effects page  for more information and ways to prevent or manage side effects.

Why have radiotherapy?

Many people with cancer have radiotherapy. Research shows that at least one in two people with cancer would benefit from radiotherapy treatment. It can be used for several reasons:

To achieve remission or cure

Radiotherapy is given with the aim of causing the signs and symptoms of cancer to reduce or disappear. This may be called curative treatment.

For control

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

To help other treatments

Radiotherapy is used before (neoadjuvant) or after (adjuvant) other treatments to make treatment more effective. It can also be used at the same time as some treatments, such as chemotherapy.

For symptom relief (palliative treatment)

Radiotherapy can help to relieve symptoms, such as pain or bleeding, to help you feel as well as possible. For example, it can help to reduce the pressure a tumour places on other organs in the body, which may relieve pain.

How is radiotherapy given?

Radiotherapy can be given in two ways:

External radiotherapy

Radiation beams from a large machine called a linear accelerator are aimed towards the area of the body where the cancer is located. The process is similar to having an x-ray. You will lie on a treatment table underneath the machine, which will remain outside of your body. You will not see or feel the treatment, although the linear accelerator can be noisy.

Internal radiotherapy

A radiation source is placed inside the body, injected into a vein, or taken by mouth. Types of internal radiotherapy include brachytherapy, where a temporary or permanent radiation source is put inside the body into or near the cancer; radionuclide therapy, where a radioactive substance is given as a capsule or liquid to swallow or via an injection; and selective internal radiation therapy (SIRT), which uses pellets to treat cancer in the liver.

You may have one or both types of radiotherapy depending on:

  • the type of cancer
  • the size of the cancer
  • where the cancer is in your body
  • whether you are having other cancer treatment
  • your age and general health.

See more detail on external and internal radiotherapy.

Where will I have treatment?

Radiotherapy is usually given in large hospitals or private clinics. It is delivered by specially trained staff called radiation therapists or nuclear medicine specialists, and is supervised by doctors called radiation oncologists, who are the main treating medical specialists for people having radiotherapy.

The linear accelerator that delivers external radiotherapy is large and takes up a lot of space, so it is located in a dedicated room. See external radiotherapy for an illustration of a linear accelerator.

Travelling to appointments

While treatment schedules vary, most people have radiotherapy as an outpatient. This means you do not stay in hospital, but travel to the treatment centre for each session. Radiotherapy centres do their best to arrange your treatment at times that are convenient for you.

If you drive to treatment, you may feel tired after a few weeks and want to organise for someone to drive you.

If the treatment centre is a long distance from your home, you may be eligible for financial assistance towards the cost of accommodation or travel.

For details, speak to the hospital social worker or radiotherapy department receptionist, call Cancer Council 13 11 20, or see our patient transport factsheet.

Can I have radiotherapy if I am pregnant?

You will probably not be able to have radiotherapy if you are pregnant, as radiation can harm a developing baby. It’s important that you don’t become pregnant during treatment. Men who have radiotherapy should avoid getting their partner pregnant during treatment and for about six months afterwards, as radiation can damage sperm.

Your doctor will be able to give you more information about radiotherapy and pregnancy.

Will I be able to work during radiotherapy?

Some people can continue to work during radiotherapy treatment, while others may need to reduce their hours or take time off. How much you are able to work depends on the type of radiotherapy you have, how the treatment makes you feel and the type of work you do.

Your treatment team will encourage you to be as active as possible, and they can answer your questions about working during treatment.

How will I know the treatment has worked?

After treatment finishes, you will have regular check-ups with your doctor. You will have a physical examination, and you may have tests or scans to check whether the cancer has responded to treatment. It may be some time after radiotherapy finishes before the full benefit is known.

Because cancer cells continue to die for weeks or months after treatment ends, your medical team won’t be able to give you progress updates during treatment. However, they can help you manage any side effects.

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

Which health professionals will I see?

Your treatment team will be made up of health professionals who care for people having radiotherapy. Some of these 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 the main treating medical specialist; prescribes and coordinates the course of radiotherapy
radiation therapist
plans and delivers radiotherapy
medical physicist
ensures that the radiotherapy machines are running correctly in order to deliver treatment accurately and safely; delivers radionuclide therapy and monitors radiation levels
radiation oncology nurses
help you manage emotional and physical problems, including side effects that you may experience during treatment
dietitian
can recommend an eating plan to follow while you are in treatment and recovery
social worker, psychologist
link you to support services and help you with any emotional issues associated with cancer and treatment
physiotherapist, occupational therapist
help you with any physical or practical issues associated with cancer and treatment

Reviewed by: A/Prof Martin Borg, Radiation Oncologist, Adelaide Radiotherapy Centre, SA; Dr Daniel Badger, Medical Physicist, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, SA; Jason Bonifacio, Centre Leader, St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, Waratah Private Hospital, Hurstville, Radiation Oncology Associates & Genesis CancerCare, NSW; Melissa Cadzow, Consumer; Kim Fotheringham, Radiation Oncology Nurse, W.P. Holman Clinic, Launceston General Hospital, TAS; Kath Lockier, Consumer; Dr Kathy Pope, Radiation Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Simoene Smith, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council NSW.

Updated: 01 Jan, 2016