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Where you have radiotherapy

Read about where you go to have radiotherapy, how long it takes and what you can expect.

Where you have external radiotherapy

You usually have external radiotherapy as an outpatient, which often means travelling to the radiotherapy department at your nearest cancer centre or unit.

This may be further away than your local hospital. 

If you prefer to have treatment at a particular time of day, let the radiotherapy department staff know so they can try to arrange this.

If the radiotherapy department is too far for you to travel from home, the hospital may have hostel accommodation if you need it.

If you are already staying in hospital, you go to the radiotherapy department from your ward.

External radiotherapy equipment

Radiotherapy equipment takes up a lot of space and needs specially trained staff to operate and maintain it.

There are different types of machine for giving external radiotherapy.

Your radiotherapy specialist (clinical oncologist) carefully chooses the type you'll have. 

Treatment doesn't usually last more than a few minutes a day. But it may take a little while to get you into the exact position to have the radiotherapy.

Just before, or during, the treatment the machine may take X-rays or scans to make sure the radiotherapy is targeted at exactly the right area.

It's normal to feel anxious about radiotherapy treatment. But as you get to know the staff and the procedure it usually gets easier.

Don't be afraid to talk to the staff about any fears or worries. They are there to help you.

How you have internal radiotherapy

There are two main sorts of internal radiotherapy:

Radioactive implants

A doctor or radiographer carefully puts a radioactive metal object known as a source inside your body, into or close to the tumour. The source may be a small sealed metal tube, small seeds or metal wires. 

When you have a radioactive implant you may have it as a day case as an outpatient treatment that takes a few hours. Or you may need to stay in hospital in a single room for a few days with the implant in place.

You need to be in a single room so that other people are not exposed to any radiation. When the source is removed you are no longer radioactive.

Some types of radioactive seeds are left in the body permanently. This type only gives radiation to a tiny area around the seeds and after a set time, they lose all their radiation.

Doctors sometimes use this type of treatment to treat early prostate cancer.

Radioactive liquids

Radioactive liquids can treat some types of cancer. You may have the liquid as a drink or by injection into a vein.

The liquid circulates in the blood and gets absorbed by the tumour cells.

For some types of tumour the doctor may inject a radioactive liquid into the part of the body containing the tumour, instead of into a vein.

After some types of radioactive liquid treatment, you may need to stay in hospital in a single room for a few days. This allows the amount of radioactivity in your body to fall to safe levels.

Radioactive liquid is most commonly used to treat thyroid cancer or cancer that has spread to the bones.

With some types of internal radiotherapy the dose of radiation is so low that it is OK for you to go straight home after the treatment.

Before you leave hospital, the staff check that you and your belongings are free of radioactivity.

Check with the staff about how much time you can spend with friends or family and how close you can get to them.

Travelling to radiotherapy appointments

The radiotherapy department staff may be able to give you a hospital parking permit to use for your appointments. Or you may be able to have discounted parking rates.

The staff can tell you about where to get help with travel fares. If you can't travel on your own, staff can arrange for you to travel by hospital transport or ambulance if necessary.

Last reviewed: 
10 Feb 2016
  • 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

  • Radiotherapy in practice - Brachytherapy (2nd edition)
    P Hoskin, C Coyle
    Oxford University Press, 2011

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