Diagnosis and treatment

Radiotherapy can be given in several different ways – and for different reasons.

When you come to the unit, you will be given detailed information about the type of radiotherapy you are having, and you will be given opportunities to ask questions.

Generally, radiotherapy is giving in the following circumstances:

Curative treatment

Radiotherapy is often given with the aim of destroying a tumour and curing the cancer. Radiotherapy may be used on its own or may be given before or after surgery or chemotherapy.

For most types of curative radiotherapy treatment, you will need to go to hospital each weekday for between two and seven weeks. A small dose of radiotherapy will be given each time.

As well as damaging cancer cells, radiotherapy can also damage healthy cells in the treatment area. If a very high dose of treatment was given in one go, it could cause too much damage to the healthy cells. So small doses are given to allow the healthy cells to recover in between.

There are generally three ways this radiotherapy will be given to you:

  • External beam radiotherapy – This is the most common way radiotherapy is given. The patient lies on a couch and a radiation beam is pointed at the affected part of the body using a large machine called a Linac (Linear Accelerator).
  • Brachytherapy – This is a form of internal radiotherapy, where solid radioactive material is placed inside your body close to or inside the tumour. This can be either in the form of removable sources which will be within the body for a limited period of time, or a permanent placement of sources which will stay there for life but will not remain radioactive for more than a few weeks. This is normally used to treat cancers of the cervix, womb, vagina or prostate.
  • Radioisotope treatment – This is a form of internal radiotherapy, where radioactive liquid is injected into a vein or given to you to drink. The most common type of radioisotope treatment is radioactive iodine. It is normally used to treat tumours of the thyroid gland.

Palliative treatment

Sometimes, when it is not possible to cure a cancer, radiotherapy may be given to relieve symptoms or to lessen pain. Lower doses of external radiotherapy are given, usually over a shorter period of time.

Total body irradiation

This is much less common than other types of radiotherapy, but is often given to patients who are having a bone marrow or stem cell transplant as part of their treatment.

A single large dose, or six to eight smaller doses, of radiation are given to the whole body to destroy the cells of the bone marrow. Very high doses of chemotherapy are also given.

After this treatment, new bone marrow will be given to the patient via a drip, to replace bone marrow that has been destroyed.