Understanding RadiotherapyDownload this book (pdf, 1.27 mb)
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.
Why is radiotherapy used?
Many people diagnosed with cancer will have radiotherapy as part of their cancer 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:
- Cure - Radiotherapy is given with the aim of curing the cancer on its own or combined with other treatments, such as surgery or chemotherapy.
- Control - Radiotherapy may be 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, such as surgery or chemotherapy. The aim is to make the main treatment more effective.
- Symptom relief - Radiotherapy is often able to relieve cancer symptoms, such as pain or bleeding, to help you to feel as well as possible.
Are there other treatment options?
Most cancers are treated by radiotherapy, chemotherapy (drug treatment) or surgery. Other treatments, such as immunotherapy and hormone therapy, can also be used for some types of cancer. Treatments are used either alone or in combination.
Your treatment depends on several factors, including the type of cancer you have, where it began, whether it has spread to other parts of your body, your general health and the type of treatment you choose.
Where will I have treatment?
Radiotherapy needs specially trained staff and takes up a lot of space. For these reasons, it is usually given in a large hospital or at a treatment clinic.
Radiotherapy departments are run in different ways, and their procedures may vary slightly. While the information in this book will apply to most departments, you may find things are done a little differently at the place where you are being treated.
How is radiotherapy given?
Radiotherapy can be given in two ways:
- from outside (external)
- inside the body (internal).
You may have one type or a combination of both forms of radiotherapy.
Radiotherapy damages cancer cells in the area being treated. Although the radiation can also damage normal cells, they can usually repair themselves.
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 may have some tests. Cancer cells begin to die during a course of radiotherapy and this may continue for weeks or months after treatment ends. The examination and tests will show if the cancer has gone away, although it may be some time after treatment finishes before the full benefit can be confirmed. This is because sometimes cancer can come back (recur) at the same place or in another part of the body. If radiotherapy is given as palliative treatment, the relief of symptoms will tell you if the treatment has worked. This may take a few weeks.
Which health professionals will I see?
Health professionals who may care for you while you are having radiotherapy include:
- radiation oncologist - a specialist doctor who prescribes and coordinates the course of treatment and advises about side effects
- radiation therapist - plans and delivers the radiation treatments
- radiation oncology nurses - help you manage emotional and physical problems such as side effects that you may experience during treatment
- radiation physicist - ensures that treatment is delivered accurately and safely
- dietitian - recommends the best eating plan to follow while you are in treatment and recovery
- speech pathologist - assesses and treats any side effects that may affect speech, swallowing or voice
- social worker, psychologist, physiotherapist and occupational therapist - advise you on support services and help you get back to your usual activities
- pastoral carer - helps with religious and spiritual concerns.