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Chemoradiotherapy treatment

Find out about having chemotherapy and radiotherapy together for rectal cancer and how you have it.

Find out about having chemotherapy and radiotherapy together for rectal cancer and how you have it.

What it is

Chemoradiotherapy means having chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment together.

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. The drugs circulate throughout the body in the bloodstream.

Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to kill cancer cells.

Giving these treatments together can stop the cancer from coming back. Chemoradiotherapy can also shrink a cancer before surgery to make it easier to remove.

Chemotherapy

The most common chemotherapy is fluorouracil (5FU), which you have through a drip. You usually have it in a chemotherapy day unit.

Or you might have a drug called capecitabine (Xeloda) as tablets. Capecitabine is similar to fluorouracil. You take it as tablets twice a day throughout your treatment.

You might have the chemotherapy before the radiotherapy starts. You continue to have it during the radiotherapy treatment.

Having fluorouracil

You might have fluorouracil in one or more of the following ways:

  • through a drip (an infusion)
  • as an infusion through a pump you wear 24 hours a day
  • as a series of injections into a vein before radiotherapy treatment

A nurse puts a small tube into one of your veins and connects it to the drip or you might need a central line. This is a long plastic tube that gives the drug into a large vein, either in your chest or in your arm. It stays in while you’re having treatment.

Taking capecitabine tablets

You must take tablets according to the instructions your doctor or pharmacist gives you.

Whether you have a full or empty stomach can affect how much of a drug gets into your bloodstream.

You should take the right dose, not more or less.

Never stop taking a cancer drug without talking to your specialist first.

Radiotherapy treatment

Before surgery

You might have a short course of 5 radiotherapy treatments in the week before surgery if your cancer can be operated on.  

You might need a longer course of treatment before surgery if you have a large tumour. The treatment may last up to 5 weeks. 

After surgery

You usually have this type of radiotherapy treatment over 4 to 5 weeks. You have treatment from Monday to Friday, so you have between 20 to 25 treatments in total.

Planning your treatment

Before you begin treatment, the radiotherapy team work out how much radiation you need. They divide it into a number of smaller treatments. They call each treatment a fraction. 

The radiographers might make pen marks or small tattoos on your skin in the treatment area.

After your planning session

Your treatment starts a few days or up to 3 weeks after the planning session. 

Having treatment

You lie under a large machine to have radiotherapy.

Side effects

Last reviewed: 
05 Jul 2016
  • Rectal Cancer: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines
    B. Glimelius and others
    Annals of Oncology 2013; 24 (Suppl 6): vi81-vi88                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

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