Radiotherapy for tongue cancer | Cancer Research UK
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Radiotherapy for tongue cancer

Dave Wilkins was diagnosed with tongue cancer in September 2009. Whilst visiting his GP, Dave mentioned in passing that he had a sore throat and was finding it difficult to swallow bread. The GP arranged for Dave to have an endoscopy. This found a growth on the back of his tongue and further investigations confirmed this was cancer. Dave had laser surgery first, which removed 70% of his cancer. He then started a six week course of radiotherapy with a dose of chemotherapy once a week.

Dave Wilkins

Having my radiotherapy mask made

To make sure I stayed perfectly still during treatment, I had to have a mask made before I started radiotherapy. First, I lay on a treatment table in one of the radiotherapy rooms. A square of plastic mesh about 50 cm by 50 cm was heated up in very hot water and placed over my face, neck, shoulders and the top of my chest. It didn’t burn but it was very hot! As the plastic mesh cooled down it collapsed into the contours of my face. The 3 technicians then pressed it down, making it a perfect fit. As it was mesh I could breathe easily during the process and see through the holes. But as it cooled and began to harden it contracted and pulled on my skin, becoming quite tight. Before the process had started the technicians had asked me if I was claustrophobic. As the mesh hardened around my skin, I could understand why they had asked - it does feel as though it is pressing in on you. The finished mask was then used to ‘fix’ me onto the radiotherapy table to make sure it fitted accurately. So my radiotherapy could be planned.

Front and side views of a radiotherapy mask

Radiotherapy treatment

When I went for treatment the radiographers helped me into the mask and fastened it to the table with clips. Occasionally, when setting the mask up, they had to alter its position a couple of times, so that I could breathe comfortably. I had to keep my mouth closed and so it was really important my nostrils were free or it was really uncomfortable. I was always asked what music I wanted to listen to and was happy when there was Jazz on offer. I was reassured that someone was watching me the whole time. I knew I only had to raise my hand if I needed anything. The worst days were those I had the chemotherapy. I had to be at the hospital early and so these days were long and tiring.

Side effects

I had a number of side effects which got worse as the treatment went on. They also continued for a few weeks after it had finished. My throat and mouth became increasingly sore. Although I could eat and felt quite well at the beginning of the treatment, by halfway I needed to use the feeding tube that had been put into my stomach. My wife Pat would use a syringe to give me a food supplement about 7 times a day. I found that Saturdays would be my worst days and I would be unable to do anything. But by Sunday afternoon I would start to feel better only for treatment to start again. I lost a stone and half over the 6 weeks and had trouble with a dry mouth, loss of voice, mouth infections, the skin around the radiotherapy site, heartburn, pins and needles, pain and hair loss - or in my case beard loss. But these were all either managed by medications or got better after I finished the treatment.

Getting back to normal

I finished my radiotherapy on the 10th November and my aim was to be able to eat Christmas dinner, which I did although the food was soft and cut up small. It has taken me a while to recover and I now have less stamina, but my voice has returned, deeper than before and my beard has grown back, less grey than before! My treatment was a success and I am very grateful to my GP and the hospital for acting so promptly. I also received incredible support from a volunteer “survivor” at the hospital at the time of my diagnosis. They had been through the same journey as I was just about to embark upon. I am now on a Macmillan Cancer Support Training Course which has allowed me to commence as a volunteer “survivor”. So I can now help and support fellow sufferers from the moment of diagnosis and throughout their course of treatments.


  • Tongue cancer is part of a group known as cancer of the mouth and oropharynx , which also includes cancers of the lip, mouth and oropharynx
  • These cancers are relatively rare - there are about 5,400 people diagnosed with them in the UK each year
  • They are usually diagnosed in people over the age of 50 and are more common in men than women
  • Treatments include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and biological therapy

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Updated: 6 April 2011