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Radiotherapy for nasopharyngeal cancer

You might have radiotherapy on its own or with chemotherapy (chemoradiotherapy). See how it's used to treat nasopharyngeal cancers. 

What it is

Radiotherapy is the main type of treatment for nasopharyngeal cancers. It uses high energy rays to kill cancer cells.

You can't feel it at all while you are having treatment. It is like having an X-ray. A course of radiotherapy lasts a few weeks, and does usually have some side effects.

How you have it

You might have:

  • radiotherapy on its own
  • radiotherapy with chemotherapy (chemoradiotherapy)
  • radiotherapy to relieve symptoms (palliative radiotherapy)

There are different ways of having radiotherapy for nasopharyngeal cancers. The most commonly used is external beam radiotherapy.

Occasionally doctors may use internal radiotherapy to treat nasopharyngeal cancer that has come back.

Radiotherapy on its own

Radiotherapy on its own is often the first choice of treatment for some types of nasopharyngeal cancer. It can cure most people with early stage cancers (stage 1 and stage 2).

Whether this type of treatment is suitable for you depends on: 

  • the size of the cancer
  • how far it has grown into the surrounding tissues
  • exactly where the cancer is

Radiotherapy with chemotherapy (chemoradiotherapy)

You might have radiotherapy and chemotherapy at the same time. This is called chemoradiotherapy.

Why you have it

Chemoradiotherapy works better than radiotherapy alone for people with stage 3 and 4 nasopharyngeal cancer, and for some people with stage 2.  It is now regarded as standard treatment for people whose cancer is not an early cancer.

Side effects

Unfortunately, chemoradiotherapy is an intensive treatment and not everyone is fit enough to cope with the side effects. You have some tests to see whether your general health is good enough to handle a full course of treatment.

Radiotherapy to relieve symptoms (palliative radiotherapy)

Radiotherapy can relieve symptoms in advanced nasopharyngeal cancers. This is called palliative radiotherapy.

Your cancer may be causing difficulty in swallowing or breathing or causing pain in your bones. Radiotherapy treatment may relieve symptoms by shrinking the cancer. The cancer may grow back, but it could take a while to do so.

Radiotherapy could relieve your symptoms for some time, but no one can say for how long. You usually have radiotherapy to control symptoms, as a short course of treatment over a few days.

Last reviewed: 
26 Aug 2014
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  • Diagnosis and Management of Head and Neck Cancer
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