Decorative image

Radiotherapy treatment for cancer

Find out how radiotherapy treats cancer and when and why you might have it.

Treatment to cure cancer

Radiotherapy treatment that aims to cure cancer is called radical radiotherapy or curative radiotherapy.

Your doctor might prescribe radiotherapy to destroy a cancerous tumour. It is one of the most important treatments to help cure cancer. 

The length of your course of treatment depends on the size and type of the cancer and where it is in your body.

The radiotherapy is often combined with other treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy or biological therapy.

Controlling symptoms

Some people have radiotherapy to relieve symptoms, for example to reduce pain. This is called palliative treatment.

You might have your treatment in a single day or over a few days.

Before surgery

Radiotherapy is sometimes given before surgery to shrink a tumour and so make it safer and easier to remove. It is then called neoadjuvant treatment or preoperative radiotherapy.

After surgery

Radiotherapy after surgery aims to kill any cancer cells that remain in the area after the operation. It aims to lower the risk of the cancer coming back.

It is often used for breast cancer, cancer of the back passage (rectal cancer), and cancers in the head and neck area. It is called adjuvant treatment or postoperative radiotherapy.

Total body irradiation (TBI)

Total body irradiation (TBI) is a type of radiotherapy sometimes given to people having a bone marrow transplant or stem cell transplant, for example for some types of leukaemia or lymphoma. 

You have radiation to the whole body combined with chemotherapy. The treatment destroys the bone marrow cells.

You then have new bone marrow or stem cells given into your bloodstream. The bone marrow or stem cells are either your own or from someone else (a donor).

Combining radiotherapy with cancer drugs

Chemotherapy can be given before, during or after a course of radiotherapy. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy given together is called chemoradiotherapy or chemoradiation.

Biological therapies can also be combined with radiotherapy to treat some types of cancer.

Last reviewed: 
10 Feb 2016
  • Radiotherapy: developing a world class service for England. 
    Report to Ministers from National Radiotherapy Advisory Group, 2007

  • De Vita, Hellman, and Rosenberg's Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (9th edition)
    De Vita, V.T., Lawrence, T.S. and Rosenberg S.A.
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.