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About radiotherapy for symptoms

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page has information about radiotherapy for cancer symptoms (palliative radiotherapy). You can find information about


What palliative radiotherapy is

Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to treat cancer. Palliative treatment means treatment to shrink a cancer, slow down its growth, or control symptoms. It does not aim to cure the cancer. Doctors use palliative radiotherapy to help shrink an advanced cancer. Or they can use it to control symptoms of a cancer that has spread to give a better quality of life.

Depending on the type of cancer you have, and where it has spread to, you may have external radiotherapy or internal radiotherapy.

External radiotherapy

External beam radiotherapy works very well for treating cancer cells in one area of the body or several distinct areas. This type of radiotherapy uses strong X-rays, which only treat the area of the body they are aimed at. You can have external radiotherapy to more than one area at the same time.

Internal radiotherapy

There are several different types of internal radiotherapy treatment. You may have a small injection of a radioactive substance to treat widespread cancer in the bones. Or you may have a radioactive metal implant put inside your body, very close to the cancer. This can shrink a cancer that is causing a blockage, for example in the food pipe (oesophagus).


When palliative radiotherapy is used

Palliative radiotherapy is used for various reasons including to

The links above take you to other pages in this section. 

Palliative radiotherapy is not suitable for all types of cancer. It depends on the particular type you have. Not all cancers respond well to radiotherapy. So other treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy or biological therapy may be more help. 

You will need to talk to your own specialist to find out the best choice of treatment in your case. But you can also look at the section about your cancer type, which will tell you the main types of treatment used.


Having external palliative radiotherapy

You have your treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department. You may just have 1 or 2 treatments or up to 10 treatments given over 2 weeks. This depends on the type of cancer. You are most likely to have a short course of a few treatments over a few days.

Planning the radiotherapy

You have a specialised CT planning scan. The 360° photo is of a CT scanner. Use the arrows to look around the room. 

You may also have other scans, such as MRI scans or PET scans. This allows the treatment team to plan the radiotherapy treatment area very precisely. During the planning session, the radiographers may make marks on your skin. They use these to make sure the same area is treated at each session. See our information about skin markings.

You may also need to have a plastic mould made to keep you still during the treatment sessions. See our information about radiotherapy moulds and masks.

You may have to wait a day or a few days until your first radiotherapy treatment.

Having external radiotherapy 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.

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 a few minutes. The radiographers watch you carefully either through a window or on a closed circuit television screen. 

You can't feel the radiotherapy. It doesn’t hurt but you may find it uncomfortable to lie in position during the treatment. The radiotherapy couch can be quite hard. You can ask your doctor or specialist nurse if you can take a painkiller half an hour beforehand if you think it might help.


Having internal palliative radiotherapy

Internal radiotherapy to treat symptoms can be given in different ways.

Radioactive capsule or drink

You have some types of internal palliative radiotherapy as a radioactive capsule or drink in the nuclear medicine department. You will then usually be allowed to go home. The staff in the department will tell you if you need to follow any safety precautions. You may need to avoid being close to children or pregnant women for a few days after the treatment. 

We have information about the different types of radiotherapy liquid treatments in this section. They include

Radiotherapy wires

Giving radiotherapy in this way is called brachytherapy. Doctors put very thin radioactive wires into your body close to the cancer. They do this while you are under a general anaesthetic in the operating room. You may have an X-ray afterwards to make sure that the wires are in the right position. 

While you have the wires in your body, you stay in a separate room. Staff and visitors will need to follow internal radiotherapy safety procedures until the wires are removed. This is usually after 3 to 4 days, but may be up to a week depending on which part of your body is being treated. You may have the wires taken out under general anaesthetic as this can be painful.

We have detailed information about treatment with radiotherapy wires.

Radiotherapy implants

To treat a tumour that is blocking an airway or your food pipe, your doctor may use an internal metal implant. Under local or general anaesthetic they put a tube down your throat and close to the tumour causing the blockage. The tube contains a radioactive metal source. Using a scan, the doctor positions the radioactive source next to the tumour. They leave it there for a few minutes and then take the tube out. 

This treatment gives a high dose of radiotherapy directly to the cancer. Very little radiation reaches the surrounding healthy tissues. In this section we have detailed information about


Side effects of palliative radiotherapy

Palliative radiotherapy aims to make you feel better. So your cancer specialist will try to choose treatments that have as few side effects as possible. Most people have few side effects but you may

  • Have some damage to normal cells around the cancer
  • Feel increasingly tired during the treatment and for a few days or weeks afterwards
  • Feel sick if you have radiotherapy to the pelvic area, stomach, tummy (abdomen) or brain
  • Have soreness when you swallow after radiotherapy to the lung, the head and neck area, or the top of the spine

To help control sickness, your doctor can give you anti sickness medicines (anti emetics). You may find that taking an anti sickness tablet an hour before your treatment helps.

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


More information about radiotherapy

We have detailed information about external radiotherapy and internal radiotherapy in this section. There is also detailed information about the side effects of 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