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Radiotherapy and cancer

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page tells you about how radiotherapy is used to treat cancer. There is information about


Curative treatment

Your doctor may prescribe radiotherapy to destroy a cancerous tumour. It is one of the most important treatments to help cure cancer.  Doctors may call this radical radiotherapy. The length of your course of treatment depends on where in your body you need treatment and the size and type of the cancer. Curative radiotherapy may be combined with other treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy or biological therapy.


Treatment to control symptoms

You may have radiotherapy to relieve symptoms, for example to reduce pain. This is called palliative treatment. You may have your treatment in a single day or over a few days. There is information about palliative radiotherapy in this section.


Treatment before surgery

Radiotherapy is sometimes given before surgery to shrink a tumour and so make it safer and easier to remove. Or it can reduce the risk of the cancer spreading during surgery. This type of treatment is often used for particular cancers, such as rectal cancer. It is called neoadjuvant treatment or preoperative radiotherapy. Chemotherapy may be given at the same time as the radiotherapy and this treatment is called chemoradiation.


Treatment after surgery

Radiotherapy after surgery is given to kill off any remaining cancer cells after the operation. It aims to lower the risk of the cancer coming back. It is often used in breast cancer, rectal cancer, and cancers of the head and neck area. It is called adjuvant treatment or postoperative radiotherapy.


Radiotherapy and cancer drugs

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

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


Total body irradiation (TBI)

Total body irradiation (TBI) is a type of radiotherapy sometimes given to patients 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 are then given new bone marrow or stem cells either from

  • A donor
  • Stem cells or bone marrow taken from you before your radiotherapy

You can find detailed information about bone marrow and stem cell transplants in our cancer treatment section. There is a page about total body irradiation (TBI).

four in ten who beat cancer have had radiotherapy

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Updated: 15 April 2014