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Stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT)

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Stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) is also called stereotactic ablative radiotherapy (SABR). It is a way of giving radiotherapy to a tumour from many different directions to target the treatment very accurately.

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

What stereotactic radiotherapy is

Stereotactic radiotherapy gives radiotherapy from many different positions around the body. The beams meet at the tumour. So the tumour receives a high dose of radiation and the tissues around it only receive a low dose. Usually you have between 3 to 8 treatments. Stereotactic radiotherapy is mainly used for very small cancers in the lung, liver, lymph nodes or spinal cord. Radiosurgery is a type of stereotactic treatment that gives extremely high doses of very highly targeted treatment over 1 to 5 sessions.

Planning stereotactic radiotherapy treatment 

First you have a planning CT scan. The radiographers will position you on the scanner couch. You may also have MRI scans or PET scans of the area of the body to be treated. The scanner uses a specialised computer programme to design a radiation plan. The radiographers may make marks on your skin to make sure exactly the same area is treated at each session. Your doctor or radiographer may ask you to have small metal markers (fiducial markers) put in or near your tumour. This makes sure that the treatment is targeted very precisely. After the planning session you usually have to wait a few days or up to 2 weeks before your first treatment session.

Having stereotactic radiotherapy

To have the treatment you lie on a radiotherapy couch. The radiographers help you to get into the right position. They leave you alone in the room while the treatment machine is on. The treatment takes between 15 minutes and 2 hours. You may have it in one go or it might be broken up with short breaks. The radiographers watch you carefully through a window or on a closed circuit television screen. They may ask you to hold your breath or take shallow breaths during the treatment.

Side effects of stereotactic radiotherapy

The side effects depend on the area of the body being treated. We have detailed information about side effects on this website.

 

What stereotactic radiotherapy is

Stereotactic radiotherapy gives radiotherapy from many different positions around the body. The beams meet at the tumour. So the tumour receives a high dose of radiation and the tissues around it only receive a low dose. This lowers the risk of side effects. Usually you have between 3 to 8 treatments.

Stereotactic radiotherapy may be used to treat brain tumours and is called cranial stereotactic radiotherapy. We have a page about stereotactic radiotherapy for brain tumours

This page gives information about stereotactic radiotherapy for body tumours. This type of radiotherapy is mainly used to treat very small cancers, including 

Stereotactic radiotherapy is also being used in clinical trials for other types of cancer. You can find details of the trials on our clinical trials database. Type 'stereotactic radiotherapy' into the search box.

 

Planning stereotactic radiotherapy

Planning stereotactic radiotherapy treatment involves several steps.

You start with a session in the radiotherapy department. You have a CT scan. The 360° photo is of a CT scanner. Use the arrows to look around the room.

You may also have MRI scans or PET scans of the area of the body to be treated. The information from these scans feeds directly into the radiotherapy planning computer.

The computer programme then designs radiation beams that follow the shape of the tumour very closely. They make sure that all of the tumour is inside the radiotherapy field and healthy tissue is avoided as far as possible. This reduces the risk of side effects.

Skin markings

The radiographers may make marks on your skin to make sure the same area is treated at each session. See our information about skin markings.

Moulds and masks

If you are having stereotactic radiotherapy to your head or neck, you may need to wear a plastic mould during your treatment. You may hear this called a shell or mask. Some types of mask are see through, others aren't. You can have a mould for other parts of the body, such as the breast or limbs.

The mould or mask keeps the treatment area completely still. So your treatment will be as accurate as possible. This also means that you can have any markings you need made on the mask, instead of on your skin. See our information about radiotherapy moulds.

Metal markers

Your doctor or radiographer may ask you to have small metal markers (fiducial markers) put in or near your tumour. For this your doctor inserts a needle into the area of skin over the tumour. They do this while you are also having an X-ray or CT scan. Once the tip of the needle is in the right place they release a small gold pellet or rod. The radiographers can then see the markers on X-rays and scans while you are having your treatment. This makes sure that the treatment is targeted very precisely.

 

After planning

After the planning session you usually have to wait a few days or up to 2 weeks for the treatment team to create your treatment plan. You then get an appointment for your first dose of radiotherapy.

 

Having SBRT treatment

To have the treatment you lie on a radiotherapy couch. The radiographers will help you to get into the right position and put on any moulds that you may need.

Different machines can be used to give stereotactic radiotherapy. The most commonly used one is a linear accelerator (LINAC). But there are other machines, including Cyberknife.

 

SBRT with a LINAC

Below is a photograph of a linear accelerator machine.

A photo of a linear accelerator, which gives radiotherapy

Once you are in the right position the staff leave you alone in the room. This is so they are not exposed to the radiation. You will be alone for between 15 to 45 minutes. You may have the treatment in one go or it may be broken up with short breaks. The radiographers watch you carefully through a window or on a closed circuit television screen. They may ask you to hold your breath or take shallow breaths during the treatment.

 

Cyberknife treatment

The CyberKnife radiotherapy machine has a robotic arm that moves around the treatment couch to give doses of radiation from different angles. The radiotherapy machine takes regular scans or regular scan results are fed into the machine's computer. This allows your radiographers to target radiotherapy beams accurately at the tumour, even if the tumour moves as you breathe.

Treatment may take from 30 minutes up to 4 hours depending on the type of cancer and the position of the tumour in the body. You may have the treatment in one go or it may be broken up with short breaks.

 

Radiosurgery

Radiosurgery is a type of stereotactic radiotherapy. It gives extremely high doses of very precisely targeted radiotherapy over 1 to 5 treatment sessions. It is used for some types of brain tumour but is not currently used for cancers elsewhere in the body. At the moment it is being tested in a clinical trial for prostate cancer.

 

Possible side effects

Stereotactic radiotherapy targets the tumour very precisely and the risk of damage to normal surrounding tissues is low. So the side effects may be less than with other types of radiotherapy. But unfortunately you can still have side effects. As with any external beam radiotherapy, the side effects only affect the part of the body that the radiotherapy treatment is aimed at.

There is more information about side effects of radiotherapy in the radiotherapy section.

 

Getting stereotactic radiotherapy treatment

Stereotactic radiotherapy is available at many treatment centres in the UK. This includes at NHS radiotherapy units that have specialised radiotherapy machines (LINACs).

If you think this treatment may be right for your type of cancer ask your doctor. If your centre cannot give it and it would be an appropriate treatment for you, you can ask your doctor to refer you to another centre. You can't approach the hospitals to refer yourself.

 

More information about radiotherapy

We have detailed information about other types of external radiotherapy in this section.

There is also detailed information about the side effects of radiotherapy.

We have information about how treatment teams plan external radiotherapy.

You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.

Our general organisations page gives details of people who can provide information about radiotherapy. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. Our cancer and treatments reading list has information about books, leaflets and other resources about radiotherapy treatment.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.

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Updated: 30 April 2014